Shortly before his visit to NYU in March 2018, Samuel Weber was kind enough to share a few thoughts with Zakir Paul about his current research.
Find details on his upcoming workshop, "On the Politics and Poetics of Singularity" and conference, "How (not) to Make a Scene With Words."
We are looking forward to your visit in a few weeks when you will be speaking at the German department conference, “How (Not) to Make a Scene (with Words)” (organized by Elisabeth Strowick and Andrea Krauss), and conducting a workshop in Comparative Literature on the “Poetics and Politics of Singularity,” in which we will discuss excerpts from your current book project. Given this context, I suppose my first question would be to ask whether and how these two areas which have long figured in your work—theatricality or performance, broadly understood, and singularity—might be related to one another.
It’s correct that I haven’t elaborated theoretically the connection between singularity and theatricality, although for instance my discussion of Benjamin’s notion of gesture indicates one possible link, via the idea of a non-identical, transformative repetition. I think this notion of repetition is a good way of clarifying the connection: in order for something to be “singular,” it must be, to use Derrida’s term, “iterable” (my spellcheck wants to change “iterable” to “utterable”, which is not entirely wrong). The peculiar nature of the “singular” as I understand it — it can be used in different ways of course—implies repetition, as Benjamin emphasized in discussing the notion of “origin” in the Preface to the Origins of the German Mourning Play. Singular is “original” in this Benjaminian sense, which is also Derridean, although Derrida does not use the word “original” always in this way. In order for something to be singular, it must be repeatable, but in being repeated, its singularity withdraws or resists the aspect of identity that is always associated with repetition. Words like “the same” and indeed “like” participate in this “aporia” whereby sameness is inseparable from difference, like from unlike. The important thing to realize about “the singular” is that its uniqueness is not self-identical, it only comes to be through the experience of its un-repeatability, whereby “un-”—as with Freud’s unconscious—must not be understood negatively, in the sense of a radical alternative, but rather as a non-unifiable co-implication or complication. Something can only be recognized in its singularity by being repeated, but in being repeated it is no longer strictly singular in the sense of being all alone or by itself; or rather it is “by” itself if “by” can be understood as “next to, alongside.” This is the way I read Kant’s arguments in the Analytics of the Beautiful and of the Sublime: the confrontation with something radically singular, that cannot be absorbed into a concept, produces a feeling of pleasure (the beautiful) or displeasure (the sublime), which however “demands”—
Kant’s word is “fordert”, which is more insistent even than “demand”—the assent of everyone; demands it, however, only as a virtual possibility, even if it is realistically impossible. In other words, the constitutive heterogeneity of the singular, the fact that it is what is it only by resisting identification qua classification or conceptualization, demands that this internally conflictual experience be addressed to others: the German word for “communicable”—mitteilbar—is not just virtual (through its suffix -bar: -able) but involves the demand that a separation or division— a Teilung—be shareable (not necessarily actually shared). So, this demand involving an address to others that remains virtual but all the more insistent and powerful, demonstrates how the internal cleavage at the heart of “the singular” necessarily has to reach out to others, not to establish an ultimate identity, but to instigate a movement that involves feelings presupposing cognitions in order to exceed them, feelings of tension, resistance, exuberance, anticipation, grief. This suggests how and why something like a theatrical dimension is intrinsic to the experience of singularity.
Your response brings to mind the way you've developed Benjamin’s attention to modes of signifying (modi significandi), as well as his own use of suffixes, the “-barkeiten” or “-abilities” that lent your 2008 study its title. One of the premises here seems to be that attention to the limits of translation and discrepancy between languages helps to expose terms—often involved in the acts of aesthetic judgment—that resist identification or conceptualization. As some of your writing on this question has appeared in French (Inquiétantes singularités, 2014), and that the texts you’re currently working on are mostly from the Germanic tradition (Hölderlin, Nietzsche, and Kafka, particularly), could you comment on the different valences of “singularity” within and between these languages.
It should be obvious, but there are powerful forces that militate against acknowledging the radicalness of linguistic, and therefore cultural differences. What militates against the recognition is the fear of “relativism,” understandable but not best served by simply denying its existence or the problems it entails. Languages are different, from each other, and also from themselves: like the singular “itself”: different from other singularities but different too and perhaps, first of all, from any attempt to identify it as a stable and unified thing or essence. In regard to language, one indication of this, rarely commented upon, is the fact that so-called individual languages are often referred to as “national” or as “natural”, whereas strictly speaking — and even loosely speaking — they are neither. German, French, English can hardly be identified with a single nation-state; nor are they clearly single languages. They are even less “natural”, having developed historically, culturally, through political violence and struggles. We also see this problem in the use of the definite article, also in scholarly writing: “the” language as opposed to “language”. This is because “language” implies some sort of relatively defined and closed system, but its definition is always problematic and indeed hypothetical. These intra- and inter-linguistic differences are sometimes frustrating, since they can call the common notion of “communication” into question, not to mention the universality of values to which one appeals, but they also can be immensely suggestive and thought-provoking. German, for instance, distinguishes quite sharply between two words that in English — at least in much North American English — are often used interchangeably, “individual” and “singular.” In German the word Individuum is almost like a foreign word, and in any case its Latinate heritage distinguishes it from the more Germanic word, “Einzel(n)” or “Einziger”. Individuum alludes to the process of individuation on which it depends, which means as the result of a process there is far less tendency to hypostasize or reify it than in American English. Einzeln is close to the designation for the number one, Eins, and thus suggests a relation to other numbers rather than anything self-contained or independent. Singular exists as well, less frequently used, and its use approaches the French word, singulier, which suggests something that doesn’t fit in, that is unusual, exceptional, odd. It is this latter usage that has probably rendered French more conducive to reflection on singularity than say English. The play of differences between the different languages reflects I think different cultural histories and tendencies, which are never monolithic within a single culture of course, but which in current-day US English tends to absorb “singular” into the notion of “individual,” a heritage surely that goes back to the Reformation and that receives a particular stamp through the conditions peculiar to the development of US society.
How, then, does the singularity of literary cognition, to refer to the title of one of your essays, differ from the use of singularity in other discursive fields?
Singularity as a self-differentiating mode of being seems particularly applicable to the status of what we call “literary” texts, and artistic works in general. They call for interpretation and other forms of interaction, but if they are historically longer lasting never are they simply identical with any one generalizing meaning or reading. A good reading, in my opinion, is one that allows one to go back to the text read and discover new aspects of it — “new” here being not incompatible with old. It’s a bit like Freud’s discovery that one of the signs of a good interpretation in analysis is when the analysand says something like “I knew it all the time, I just never thought of it.” The “knowing it all the time” confirms a certain response to the text, whereas the “not thinking about if” indicates that it was not available to self-consciousness, although “known”. As Derrida says about Kafka’s short text, “Before the Law,” literature can be seen as both subordinate to the law and hence to generalization, while at the same time resisting it, remaining an outlaw, “before” the law both spatially, temporally and figuratively. More concretely, literature—at least certain literary texts—both presuppose the generalities of established conventions and disrupt them by revealing certain motives and factors that give them their staying power, but only by being ignored. To sum up, I follow Derrida in seeing singularity in general and particularly in relation to literary texts as an “aporetic” notion, closer to “unique” than to “individual,” and exemplifying the paradox that once it is re-cognized as being “the same,” it has already withdrawn; it is experienced in its “resistance” to such identifications, which however are absolutely necessary because otherwise we wouldn’t “know” anything about it. But that “knowing” therefore is not just cognitive or conceptual, but affective: we are affected by the ways its withdraws and resists our attempts to “grasp” it conceptually. The “grasp” always involves a moving object, moving away from “itself” qua its immediate appearance or denotative meaning. This is also what happens in strong readings of literary texts: we come back to the text, but as something other than what it was.
The violence behind conceptual, linguistic, and national unification ties into the political dimension of your project, which questions the considerable investment in treating “signifying” as a stable, identifiable process available to cognition independently of time and place. How does singularity address, interrupt, or contest political conventions and institutions? I am thinking of your remark that singularity should not be understood as merely negative, not simply “rejecting the conventionality of meaning but repudiating it in specific situations,” thereby opening up alternative “nets of signifiers.”
Singularity is what it is only by pointing away from its immediate appearance and location. Those “other ways” however are also always relatively localized in time and space, and in this sense both historically and politically conditioned if not co-determined. There is no signifying without a link to a signified—the “signifier” could not be identified “as such” were this not the case. But the “case” of the signified is in turn dependent on other signifiers: it “falls”: “case” is related to “cadere”—which spellcheck just wanted to “correct” to “cadre” (“frame”)—something that is indeed implied. As Benjamin writes in his discussion of Brecht’s epic theater, the actor should learn how to “fall out of the role artistically”. This means that s/he does not simply fall but falls in a particular direction and in a particular way. The falling opens up new possibilities, and the vertical axis of falling and rising is not the only direction taken by the movement, which is also transversal. Lacan’s distinction between sign and signifier may help here: the sign he writes, represents something to someone; the poles are fixed and defined. The signifier presents a subject to another signifier. One could add, the signifier presents a signified to another signifier. This is in part what Derrida suggests at the end of his chapter on Saussure in Of Grammatology: the signified is always already in the position of signifying. Which is to say, of pointing elsewhere. Or indeed of moving elsewhere since a signifier that reveals a different signification changes without changing its “physical position” in a text.
Now this process could be unending — and in a certain sense, virtually is. But in order for communication and action to take place, at least as generally conceived, the process of virtually interminable signifying must be “actualized”, which means interrupted. And in order for these interruptions to function smoothly as conventions, they have the tendency to either naturalize or ontologize themselves. The specific delimiting conventions of this sort respond to relations of force, to power structures, which in turn depend on the traditions they tend to privilege. This is why the seemingly particular tradition of “individualism” may in fact be more general than particular. Qua signifying, the singular is intrinsically, structurally divisible, not indivisible. It is divided by the virtually interminable concatenations upon which it depends, but which ultimately would dissolve its specificity almost entirely: it would be equal to all the words and phrases that could be constructed in relation to it. In order then to preserve a minimal and necessary degree of determination, something like the or an “individual”—a being that is what it is without being divided or separated from itself—would be necessary. What I am describing here is not the singular in and of itself, but rather a certain experience of singularity, an experience that is historically conditioned and probably therefore not at all “universal”. In what we call “the West,” this experience is marked by a religious tradition that conceives of identity on the model of a single, universal creator-god. This god is conceived as both individuated and universal. This serves as a paradigm for the way identity is construed—I call this “the mono-theological identity paradigm,” and I suspect that it is as active today, in what often claims to be non-religious, secular societies, as it ever was in more directly religious ones. The universal and exclusive creator-god is imagined in order to sustain a notion of identity, which can be personal or collective, as in its essence impervious to temporal and spatial transformations. This is also the basis of a “humanism” that places human being over all other forms, precisely because of its proximity to this paradigm (created in the image of its creator-god). Politics, as commonly understood and practiced, deploys the fundamentally self-destructive tension between autonomous individual and its relation to others in the chronic instability of national sovereignty, and in the mission to “protect” and “secure” what cannot be so easily protected and secured. For what it is trying to protect against is its irreducible dependence on and involvement in others, its irreducible heterogeneity. This is why the measure of movement and progress is increasingly construed as an extension of what is already self-identical, as “moving forward” and as being “number one”. “Trump” is thus not just a proper name but a generic one, since the basic presupposition of the mono-theological identity paradigm is a common denominator, a universal equivalent that allows for the double bookkeeping that determines capitalist rationality. There should always be a “bottom line” to measure profit and loss. Singularity is thus increasingly subordinated under individuality, heterogeneity under homogeneity, which concretely today expresses itself in the growing economic, political and social importance of dynastic continuity. Thomas Piketty’s critical study of the growing importance of inherited wealth (and power one should add) in contemporary capitalism gives us empirical confirmation of this trend, as does the worldwide tendency to concentrate power in the hands of family members (which of course by no means eliminates conflicts, as Freud reminds us in Totem and Taboo and elsewhere). But the conflict is ultimately rooted in the incapacity to accept and negotiate with the heterogeneity of self-identity, in whatever form, personal, social, political or economic.
Since you evoked the “mono-theological identity paradigm”—one of the rare neologisms in your writing—perhaps you could say more about how it relates to your reading of Nietzsche’s critique of anthropocentrism, particularly in “Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense.” Do you see the concerns of that text, which Nietzsche describes as an “epistemo-theoretical introduction,” as having a particular relevance today?
Let me single out just one strand of a possible response to this question, since its implications are enormous and an “adequate” response could easily fill a whole book. Let me instead point to what I take to be something of an internal tension if not paradox in Nietzsche’s text: it is related to the word “Lie” (Lüge). This word generally connotes a more or less conscious intention to deceive. And yet much, if not all, of what Nietzsche is describing in that essay points to what we would today consider an “unconscious” activity: the deception is a self-deception, but we wouldn’t normally think of a self-deception as a “lie”. Nevertheless, the examples Nietzsche gives: “flattering, lying, cheating, talking behind one’s back etc.” all indicate a deliberate effort to deceive, and usually someone else. The effort is deliberate, but the deliberation is not accessible to our unifying self-consciousness. It is inaccessible mainly insofar as its contents are not easily compatible with the notion of the self as a unified whole.
How does this relate to what I call the “mono-theological identity paradigm”? It suggests that there is a coherent scheme governing the constitution and preservation of this paradigm, but that it is neither the result of a self-conscious act nor easily compatible with self-consciousness qua unified. The mono-theological identity paradigm would thus be the product of a projection designed—but not deliberately—to assuage the anxiety felt by an ego that cannot reconcile its limitations as a singular mortal living being with a notion of the self as something that stays essentially the same over space and time. In Inhibition, Symptoms, and Anxiety (1936), Freud defines anxiety as the response of the ego to a perceived danger. What a perceived danger however is always remains dependent on the expectations that govern that perception, which is always also and first of all a self-perception. If the sense of self is however dependent on a certain image of self, there is an intrinsic contradiction: for any image must be delimited, limited in time and space, in order to be perceivable; but such limitation in time and space also means that it will one day no longer be perceivable, “imaginable,” and hence no longer be. This is the intrinsic “danger” that a certain “ego”—I—seeks to defend against by the projection of the mono-theological identity paradigm. So, it is not exactly a “lie” in the usual sense, but it does reflect a largely unconscious “will not to know”—the same kind of “will” that Freud acknowledged but was unable to theorize in relation to “repression.” This is why it is significant that in Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety he reversed his early theory of anxiety, which tried to construe it as a result of repression—as a return of the repressed—and instead argued that anxiety had to be considered to be the “cause” of repression. But this in turn presupposes an Ego, as the “site” of anxiety. Which suggests, paradoxically, that there must have been an “ego” before the formation of the ego, otherwise represented by Freud as largely the result of repression. This, I believe, is a way of acknowledging that a purely individual-based psychology (Freud’s second topology of I-it and Super (or better: trans-)I (Ich-Es-Überich) cannot satisfactorily account for psychic development, which is based on transindividual categories. The idea of an Ur-Ich (like that of Urverdrüngung) indicates that there is always another step back to be taken beyond the existing explanatory system. This has something to do with what Derrida has called “trace” and-or “remnant” (reste). It is also a paradox that becomes legible when one translates Nietzsche's “Ewige Wiederkunft des Gleichen” as “Eternal Comeback of the Like” rather than as “of the Same”.
Your description of the limits of individual psychology connects to your work on media and technics. It has become a bit of a cliché to speculate on how various technological media must entail psychic transformation, when their effects remain largely unforeseeable. Would you agree that notions traditionally elaborated in poetics—such as rhythm, repetition, interruption, or caesura—can be helpful for thinking about various visual and virtual forms?
First of all, I think one should begin by problematizing the tendency to equate “media” with the “visual”: there is no doubt that this has been the predominant area in which many media studies have developed, but we should be alert to the fact that “the visual” is only one of a series of so-called “senses”, and also that these senses not only interact with one another but presuppose each other in complicated ways. In recent years, “sound studies” have developed rapidly, and I suspect that the “tactile” and “olfactory”, not to mention the “gustatory” will also be assuming greater prominence. I think the rise of these other, “lower” senses— as opposed to the visual —will open up new possibilities in articulating experiences of singularity, which precisely by virtue of its uniqueness, tend to resist traditional concepts and categories. The reason why the visual is so much easier to discuss and describe—or seems so—than the other senses is because it is more easily identified with objects, and hence with words, especially nouns. Already with the acoustic this is no longer as easy, and it becomes increasingly complicated with the tactile, olfactory and gustatory experiences. But this difficulty forces one to confront the mediality of the sense-experience rather than its objects, a mediality that is somewhere between subject and object and indeed that constitutes them. A category such as “rhythm” involves more complex phenomena than can be associated with “objects”: it involves “repetition,” another term you mention. It’s interesting that when Freud discards a purely quantitative notion of the pleasure principle, as the discharge of accumulated tension, he invokes the notion of “rhythm” as a possible alternative: a sequence that recurs and that involves temporal distribution of elements (in “The Economic Problem of Masochism,” 1924). And Benjamin, who of course extensively employs the categories of interruption (inspired by the Hölderlinian notion of a “caesura”), also invokes the notion of rhythm in the introduction to his book on the German Mourning Play, to describe his own writing and thought process in that book. I have even tried to interpret his PhD thesis on the “Concept of Art Criticism in German Romanticism” (1919) as tracing a move from the notion of representation to that of repetition, which he identifies above all with Hölderlin; repetition or rather “reproducibility” becomes his chief category is distinguishing film and photography as reproductive media from the more traditional genres of “art”. And today, the shift from the “analogical” to the “digital” both confirms and develops Benjamin’s notion of “reproducibility” — i.e. a form of productive and interruptive repetition that constitutes relationships more like rhythmic patterns than as fixed objects. These patterns remain “virtual” insofar as their effects are not reducible to the traditional aesthetic notion of a “form” that would delineate an object by demarcating it from its surroundings (to return to the question of the “frame”).
The poster for the workshop shows an image of the Paris Catacombs from Pictures at An Exhibition by the Russian architect and painter Viktor Hartmann, whose illustrations inspired Mussorgsky’s eponymous suites in 1874. What drew you to write about that composition?
Regarding the Hartmann picture, I was asked to give a lecture for a London research group working on the question of how exhibits of all kinds are archived, transmitted and thus historicized. At first, I was a bit reluctant to accept their invitation, since they have been working primarily on exhibitions involving visual art and installations in which the visual element is dominant, and my own experience has been more related to language. However, the topic seemed challenging and I took the chance of accepting. As I began to write I wasn’t quite sure what direction I would take—but instead, the demand took me in an unexpected direction, one that I had not at all anticipated at the outset. For some strange reason, I thought of the Mussorgsky piece and wondered just why and how it might be a form of “archiving” or transmitting an “exhibition,” which it took for its title. I made a certain number of discoveries in the process that made it quite an exciting adventure. First, I had known the music mainly from its orchestral version, done by Ravel. But Mussorgsky wrote it originally for piano. In recent years I have become increasingly attentive to instrumentation and have been thinking about how individual instruments and groups of instruments give music a very different character. The case of Mussorgsky was one in point, for the piano version obviously cannot reproduce the monumental opening fanfare of the entry into the Kiev Museum where the exhibition in question was being held. The story of that exhibition added to the interest of the piece: Hartmann, who was an architect primarily, but also a painter and draftsman, had died suddenly the year before, at the relatively young age of 39, and the exhibition was intended to pay tribute to his work and memory. Mussorgsky’s piece went through a series of transformations, particularly after it was adapted for orchestra, which happened fairly soon after its composition: pieces were omitted and above all, the dynamics of the original piano score greatly changed in order to exploit the resources of an orchestra. The individual pieces are devoted to individual paintings or drawings of Hartmann, but they are introduced and connected by a recurrent but varied series of “Promenades,” so that what is represented in music is not just the exhibited works, but the very process of entering and traversing the exhibition, going up the steps, and then from room to room. The exhibition is thus seen from the position of a visitor, but one who is anything but static. I was particularly fascinated by the two pieces more or less at the center of the series, one—the picture used for the poster—was a response to Hartmann’s drawing of himself, a friend and a guide in the Parisian catacombs. Given the memorial, commemorative context of the Exhibition, this picture was also a picture of the exhibition itself, or at least of its effort to conserve a memory of the artist and his work beyond the grave. The second, related piece, following immediately after The Catacombs, is called Con mortuis in lingua mortua (“With the dead in a dead tongue”)—and as critics have noted, it is here that the dividing line between the observer and the observed, reader and text, listener and music, and perhaps visitor and exhibition, is revealed as particularly tenuous. Much more could be said, both about the Mussorgsky piece and its relation to a the question of how exhibitions can and are transmitted—especially in view of the availability of digital media—but I think I will leave it at that.
Samuel Weber is Avalon Foundation Professor of Humanities at Northwestern and co-director of its Paris Program in Critical Theory. Weber studied with Paul de Man and Theodor W. Adorno, whose book, Prisms, he co-translated into English. The translation of and introduction to Theodor Adorno’s most important book of cultural criticism helped define the way in which the work of the Frankfurt School would be read and understood in the English-speaking world. Professor Weber has also published books on Balzac, Lacan, and Freud as well as on the relation of institutions and media to interpretation. In the 1980s he worked in Germany as a “dramaturge” in theater and opera productions. Out of the confrontation of that experience with his work in critical theory came the book Theatricality as Medium, published in 2004 by Fordham University Press. In 2005 he published Targets of Opportunity: On the Militarization of Thinking, also at Fordham. Benjamin’s -abilities appeared with Harvard UP in 2010. His most recent book, a selection of essays in French translation, Inquiétantes singularités, was published by Hermann in 2014. His current research projects include “Toward a Politics of Singularity” and “The Uncanny.” Professor Weber began teaching at the Free University of Berlin and subsequently taught at the Johns Hopkins University and UCLA before joining Northwestern in 2001.