Negativity and Literature
Maintaining a distinction between the literary and Literature, this paper asks the provocative questions: Do we need a specific discipline of literary studies? Why could not the study of the literary be absorbed interdisciplinarily into some broader discipline or dispersed among several? In response, the paper defines the study of Literature as the study of negativities and argues that as such it is necessary to the university as a place of criticism in a time of totalitarian threat. As fiction, Literature lies, but unreliably and thus presents the most intricately woven system of lies. The paper explores this system in Rousseau, Baudelaire, Proust, Freud, and Derrida and reveals the rule of the auto-immune reaction, by which a person or a democracy attempting to protect itself may bring about its own demise. The study of literature reveals this danger, and the paper concludes that the study of fiction is necessary as fictions are more and more successfully exploited by totalitarian forces.
Negativity and Literature
Let me begin by making a distinction, between Literature, on the one hand, and the literary, on the other, which I do not take to be an absolute difference, but only a heuristic division for the sake of argument. To my mind, the literary predates Literature and extends more widely: literary language like song may be universal. Its possibility belongs, at the very least, to the figural nature of language and to its capacity for mimesis, for the possibility of representation, for truth and for lying. All cultures, in that sense, have the literary, have produced something like poetry or fiction. But Literature (with a capital L), as distinct from the literary, is a European institution of the late 17th and 18th century. It’s instituting is tied to the publication and sale of books, to the creation of audiences, and the concomitant rise of journalistic commentary. Literary institutions may have grown up elsewhere in the world, at different eras, but only texts within the European sphere of reference, of citation and allusion, are what we are calling here today Literature with a Capital L.
[I shall try in this paper to maintain the difference between Literature and the literary, but I fear I will not always be successful, because the difference is a fiction, that may be useful to wield for a time, but is ultimately untenable.]
Until recently, Literature has been the object of academic literary studies, which, in its current form, arose in the 19th century out of the German school of philology, the study of the history of language as it is preserved in manuscripts, books, and in the texts of the archive.
At its origins, the study of Literature as an academic discipline is a branch of philology and like its mother science literary studies are concerned, in the first place, with the preservation and transmission of texts in the archive. What ever else the study of Literature does, however well or badly done, it keeps alive and available the tradition of those literary texts that it deems worthy to be studied. But the question is being asked: Do we need a specific discipline of literary studies? Why couldn’t the study of the literary, in the academy, be absorbed interdisciplinarily into some broader discipline or dispersed among several? What, after all, would be lost if the study of Literature, say, at Cornell, were placed, God forbid, under the aegis of something like the Society for the Humanities, where it would become part of a globalized humanistic study that examined different cultures, their artefacts and institutions, and in addition, the role that the literary plays in their formation and reflection. The literary will be studied particularly as it serves to illuminate history and describe myths of national or ethnic identity. Absorbed, once and for all into the globalized study of the humanities and social sciences, the study of Literature will have lost its claim to constitute an autonomous, self-defining institution with its own criteria for excellence and its own professional requirements. But will anything be lost?
Well, some jobs might be lost. It might well mean the end of academic literary criticism per se, the written analysis and criticism of Literature, and consequently of jobs like ours in departments of Literature. In a more globalized curriculum, literary critical approaches arising from the study of Literature would eventually cease to exist. Just as one has expanded the academic canon to include the literary from around the globe, there will shortly seem to be no reason to continue to criticize, to write and teach about the literary, in the ways and in the terms with which it has until recently been done in the Euro-centric tradition of the study of Literature. Will anything be lost?
Just as Literature, with a capital L is ceasing to be the exclusive object of literary studies, the discipline of literary studies is on the point of disappearing, under the pressure of a more general resistance to Literature with a capital L that comes from without and from within. That tendency, I want to argue, should be as welcomed as it should be deplored. The elitism and ethnocentrism associated with the study of white Anglo–European Literature, with a capital L, is being systematically erased in the expansion of the literary canon to include works outside traditional Western parameters.
However welcome that development, it risks, at the same time, evincing the critical tools that are so urgently required in a society where censorious lies and plutocratic propaganda threaten to replace all public discourse. The threat to academic literary studies comes from those within and without the disciplines that resist what is most radical, most critical in the discipline of literary studies. Why should there be, more than ever, a resistance to the study of Literature in the academy, a fortiori in society, at the very moment when the literary is everywhere, when every child in America, by the time it is adult, will have experienced exponentially more narrative plots, by way of the media, than any child in history?
I want to argue that unlike the other disciplines, which are positive sciences, the study of Literature, as it has become institutionalized as a discipline in America, is still for the moment, in its most refined forms, the study of negativities. There is no criticism without negativity–without an implicit, increasingly explicit understanding of possible forms of negativity. The study of literature takes as its object those texts in the archive that are negative by definition–I mean, fictions–texts which have no reliable referent. Since the study of literature studies nothing, or rather nothings, it is the most fragile, least understood of disciplines by those outside it. In its most highly developed expressions, literary studies are totally absent from the public media. Because of its fundamental focus on negativity, the study of Literature cannot enter into interdisciplinary studies except by abandoning the very aims and object that give it its coherence as a discipline. Will anything be lost?
I want to argue that the study of Literature is the most fragile discipline in the university. It is therefore the one most likely to be abandoned, precisely at the moment when totalitarianism looms, when the study of literature is more necessary than ever to the existence of the university as a place of criticism–where alternatives to the status quo may be thought.
What give the discipline of literary study its critical fragility is that its object of study, Literature, is the most fragile of all objects, not only because it consists in fictions, but because its existence depends entirely on the material existence of the archive, without any external referent. Alone among the disciplines the study of Literature fails the total–nuclear–war test: After a nuclear holocaust, positive sciences, physics or archaeology, would still be possible. Art would revive. Straggling survivors might even reinvent epic or lyric song. But they could never reconstitute Literature: La Chanson de Roland, or the Prelude–if they were ever lost forever in the unimaginable rubble of total nuclear war, in which, worse than Alexandria, the whole archival system would become irretrievably undone. All disciplines that depend on the archive, like history or law, would be devastated but could reconstitute themselves in some form. The exceptional fragility of Literature lies in the fact that its existence is entirely inter-textual, it depends on the system of referencing and cross referencing that constitutes the archive and without which the study of Literature is impossible. Literature has no possible existence outside the archive.
The fragility of Literature, its purely textual and inter–textual character, derives as well, as we have said, from its consisting in fictional texts, among which I include most forms of lyrical, subjective expression. When I write a poem or an autobiography, it is a kind of fiction that has some validity for me but no objective referent. It may perfectly well consist entirely in lies I make up. It is the fact of fiction that is at the heart of the discipline of literary studies, and that is its specific object of study.
Being fiction means that Literature has no reliable referent in the world. To study Literature is to confront the irresponsibility of fiction, its resistance to being made to give a credible account of reality. Literature lies, but unreliably. Conversely, it sometimes tells the truth. If it never told the truth about reality, it would be reliably untrue and hence not Literature. It is the study of those unreliable lies that constitute the object of the discipline of the study of Literature. Lies are some of what we are calling negativities, and Literature presents us with the most intricately woven systems of lies. I will try in this talk to illustrate such a form of negativity and point to others.
Since Literature, understood as fiction, has no responsibility toward reality, it cannot be inserted into the scientific, objective aims of other disciplines, except in so far as those disciplines mis–take precisely what makes it what it is–repressing and denying the literariness, the littérarité, of Literature. Other disciplines want to use or make use of literature in order to understand something about reality. And literature may be appropriated for every kind of disciplinary activity. Look at the shelves of the Cornell bookstore, where novels can be found being taught in every discipline of the humanities and social sciences. But the moment other disciplines seize hold of fiction in such a way as to make it speak about the world, it ceases to be the lie that it is. The moment an historian cites a poem, it ceases, for reasons that are structural, not psychological, to be poetry and becomes a document, a tool more or less useful to historical research. (And it will invariably prove to be true that the historian is read by the poem that by citing she reads. Historians are ultimately inscribed by the fiction their narrative seeks to expunge. That is also true of literary critics, but they are supposed to know that in advance.) Other disciplines, social sciences or humanities are eager to repress and deny Literature’s irresponsibility, its refusal of referentiality, in their wish to domesticate the literary and incorporate it into their representations of reality.
The current vogue of interdisciplinarity threatens to undermine and destroy the study of the institution of Literature. But the threat to literary studies comes not only from without but with–in. There are many students of Literature who are eager to read and study Literature as the reflection or expression of reality, particularly where it concerns political questions of identity. Those are perfectly legitimate uses of literature, if the aim is to exploit its documentary quality, as evidence or confirmation of some historical reality (using, for example, 18th century novels as a guide to the history of manners or trade). But that legitimate use of Literature does not require the autonomous discipline of literary studies. The study of Literature, as I am trying to describe it essentially, concerns itself with the fictive nature of its object. It defines itself against all forms of interdisciplinarity that aim to incorporate and amalgamate Literature into its quest for positive knowledge.
What is fiction? In the first place, according to the classic definition, fiction lies. It speaks but it does not tell the truth.
Rousseau’s “Fourth Reverie” is the usual starting point for the analysis of lying in general and fiction in particular. Rousseau writes for example:
I remember having read in a book of philosophy that to lie is to hide a truth one ought to reveal. It surely follows from this definition that to silence a truth that one is not obliged to speak is not to lie; but whoever in such a case of not speaking the truth [when one is not obliged to] actually says the opposite, is that lying or is it not? According to the definition with which we began, one cannot say that such a person is lying: for if he gives counterfeit money to a man to whom he owes nothing, he doubtless deceives this man, but he does not steal from him.
For Rousseau, fiction is a special class of lying that is not above suspicion, it is after all a kind of deceit or deception, but it does not incur the moral reprobation that he directs toward theft or lying when one ought to tell the truth, reprehensible acts performed at the expense of others or for one’s own profit. Rousseau, you may remember, in La Lettre à D’Alembert took a solemn oath to always tell the truth and adopted the motto: Vitam impendere vero. (To commit one’s life–to consecrate or dedicate it with “ardent love” he writes–to Truth: Vero: to truth.) Fiction is therefore a problem for the author of the most popular novel of its age, La Nouvelle Héloïse. Not to tell the truth and to say what is false are two different things, two different forms of deception, of negativity.
To lie, says Rousseau, is to hide the truth when it ought to be manifested. The crime of perjury means: saying the contrary of what you know to be the truth, in a court of law. Lying is defined as NOT telling the truth, lacking in the very thing to which Rousseau dedicates his life, a negativity more negative than death itself. Lying is the beginning of all moral failure, the worst crime. And fiction is a kind of lie, pure and simple, that knows itself to be a non–truth, knows that it is making up a lie. In the 18th century, fiction often announced that it was lying by saying, “This is the true story of two lovers whose letters have been found in a trunk in the attic. ” The author lied with effrontery, but he knew that the lie he was telling– “this is all true”- was a conventional sign to the reader that what she was reading was fiction.
You are allowed not to speak the truth if you are not obliged to. It is permissible to keep silent a truth which you are under no obligation to speak. You are not morally required to tell someone they look like Hell. But not saying the truth and saying something false (“You look absolutely gorgeous!”) are two different things. Perhaps. To speak a lie, any lie, is not only to observe something which is not true, it is also an act, the performance of the action of giving someone something of no value. To lie is to give the other a gift, an implicit promise, one that is empty, without value, un–entitled to credit or credibility– like giving someone a counterfeit coin, to use Rousseau’s example, when they are expecting a real one. It is a criminal fraud. But in a situation where one is not obliged to give the truth, where one owes nothing, what does it mean to give a counterfeit coin, a lie, a fiction to someone outside the relation of exchange. It is a gift that asks for nothing, expects nothing in return. It is perhaps deceitful, more harmful to oneself than the other, but not a lie. Deceitful but not a lie–a gift of no value that owes the recipient nothing, who receives nothing in the non–exchange. Counterfeit money, la fausse monnaie, is a gift that is without profit or prejudice to the one or the other, Rousseau avers:
Mentir sans profit ni préjudice de soi ni d'autrui n'est pas mentir : ce n'est pas mensonge, c'est fiction.
To lie without profit or prejudice is not to lie. To lie is not to lie, it is fiction. Mentir . . . n’est pas mentir. Like a Cretan who says all Cretans are liars. How more negatively could one pose a tautology, which is also a perfect antinomy, at the heart of the first definition of fiction in the history of Literature?
Giving counterfeit money to a person to whom one owes nothing might well describe the action of the friend who appears in a little prose poem of Baudelaire, entitled, “La fausse monnaie,” which Jacques Derrida has extensively analyzed in “Giving time.” Baudelaire, we know, was a reader of Rousseau, and the famous passage we read above, from the “4ème Rêverie,” identifies fiction explicitly with the gift of counterfeit, la fausse monnaie. The narrator of the little “poème en prose” reflects on the motives of a friend who gives a large counterfeit coin to a beggar, someone to whom, according to the Rousseauian definition, he owes nothing. Such a gesture, giving a counterfeit coin to a beggar, is a kind of deception or lie, but the Rousseauian question is whether it is an innocent one. The narrator concludes that in the case of his friend, the counterfeit coin is given in order to do charity on the cheap. Hence it is a lie, pure and simple. He wants to have his cake and eat it too: gain the good conscience of charity without any cost to himself. Such a gift is a lie that does no harm to the other but profits the liar. It could further be argued that one owes a beggar more than counterfeit coin. Given the venal motives of the friend, this gift of counterfeit money is not innocent. But the narrator of Baudelaire’s little poem imagines another possible motive for the gift of a counterfeit coin, one that comes closer to Rousseau’s definition of fiction, the gift of a lie that bears no prejudice. Suppose his friend were a kind of reckless but innocent poet and wanted to see what marvellous or terrible possibilities might arise as a result of giving such a gift. In his fantasy the narrator imagines the different ways that counterfeit gift might change the beggar’s life, sending him to jail or starting his fortune. If the gift of a lie is given with no intention to profit or harm, but for the mere pleasure of entertaining imaginative hypotheses, then it is not a lie. Mentir n’est pas mentir. Whether the gift turns out well or badly, it preserves its value for the aesthetic imagination, retrospectively seen to be cruel or beneficent (aesthetic cruelty is indifferent to the suffering of others, sadistic cruelty wishes their pain). It is a lie, this gift, because it deceives the beggar, but it is less morally reprehensible than the good conscience, and bad faith of the venal friend, profiting from his charity on every hand.
Both Rousseau and Baudelaire differentiate between degrees of lying, of giving counterfeit signs, without the legitimation, the title or entitlement of truth. Rousseau and Baudelaire construct moral hierarchies of lies, where some are more deplorable than others. Some lies are not tolerated in books, where it is easy to rail against them, while they are perfectly approved, indispensable even, in society. From our perspective, these different degrees of lying correspond to more or less complex relations of negativity–different negativities. Lying that is innocent is what Rousseau and Baudelaire would call fiction. Already the figures of negativity have grown more complex.
Counterfeit money, however, is not a thing like other things in the world. It is a sign that gives itself as being authentic, as authorized and entitled to bear the title of money, but is in fact a lie. It has not been entitled, authorized to be exchanged, but it must be able to be exchanged if it is to be what it is: it is only counterfeit money at the moment it passes for real money. If I give you in exchange a dollar made of cardboard, it is not counterfeit money since it doesn’t resemble real money at all. In order for money to be counterfeit it must appear to be so real that it passes in exchange. Only if it is accepted as true can it be false. If it is recognized as being counterfeit, it ceases to be counterfeit money.
In a final twist of the negativity, it is demonstrable, as Derrida demonstrates, that among the several meanings or referents of the title of Baudelaire’s poem, “La fausse monnaie” –the title–signals self–referentially that the text we are reading, this prose poem entitled “La fausse monnaie,” is itself a counterfeit coin, a lie or piece of fiction. Within the poem whatever is said about counterfeit money can also be said by implication about the fiction of the prose poem itself. Thus, one can say, as Derrida has said, that the thing in the text referred to by the title, i.e. counterfeit money/la fausse monnaie, itself already contains the whole story. What follows the title, “La fausse monnaie,” can be seen as only a gloss or commentary on the title, which says everything already. The thing it says is this strange fiction, counterfeit money, that the friend gives to the beggar, which generates imaginative hypotheses. The title singles out one of the details that composes the poem, the counterfeit coin–a detail that comprises the whole poem. The part contains the whole, is bigger than the whole, because it is itself a detail and, in addition, includes the whole.
Such a relation of part to whole is strictly unimaginable, it implies a relation of something to itself that is so negative as to be un–representable, but it is a well known feature of what is called a “mise en abyme”: the contained contains the container that contains it. Within the story the counterfeit coin, the fausse monnaie, is both the subject and object of the whole, represents the whole, and is itself separate and apart, it is the sign of the whole plus itself, hence more than the whole of the poem–whatever that means. It means a relation that is not imaginable but is strangely thinkable–relations of negativity that positive sciences do not reach. The poem is telling us something about fiction and the peculiar power of negativities that it generates.
Let me have the pleasure of reading to you the famous passage in Proust, so crucially read by Paul de Man1, where the narrator describes the bottles, filled with water and little fishes that he observes in the river Vivonne where he sits.
I liked to look at the carafes which the boys put in the Vivonne to catch little fish, and which were filled by the river that in turn enclosed them, so that they became at once a “container” with transparent sides like hardened water and a “content” immersed in a larger container of coursing liquid crystal, and evoked the image of coolness more deliciously and vexingly than they would have on a table laid for dinner, by showing it only in that perpetual alliterative flight between the water without consistency in which my hands could not capture it and the glass without fluidity in which my palate could not enjoy it.
That delicious/vexing figure of negativity is linked to the self generating, alliterative movement of this figure, like a profusion of the same vowels in which container and contained are ceaselessly passing from one to the other, both container and contained separately distinguishable in the mind and indistinguishable in alliterative flight before the eyes, intermittently both and neither. The figure is an abyss that arouses feelings of the sublime, when the mind outstrips the possibilities of perception, reaches beyond the formal finitude of all images, even those invented by the imagination, in order to contemplate the abyss, the idea of infinity.
This figure of negativity, a container contained by what it contains, takes other forms. Freud tells an amazing story of a patient, an obsessive neurotic, who said a little apotropaic prayer every time he felt the least sexual desire, in order to ward off the anxiety it aroused. Freud does not, for reasons that will be obvious, tell us the exact words his patient said, so let me invent some to illustrate concretely what Freud only describes. Suppose every time the patient approached his beloved, he utters this little prayer in nonsense German: “Elohim in diese. Amen.” Freud, listening with his third ear, first of all hears in that prayer a sort of anagram for Elo–i–se, the name of the woman the patient unsuccessfully loved (and whose name Freud could not reveal). The patient himself was perhaps unaware of the anagram, but might have noticed it. What he probably did not realize, which Freud observes, was that by adding Amen to her name in the prayer, he was pronouncing, without realizing, the sound of S–amen, the word in German means semen. He was putting semen in contact with a portion of his beloved, with her name, something he could not do in life. The sexual danger he was repressively trying to ward off with his neurotic prayer returned in the very words he was using to save himself. Freud concludes with a magnificent rule: “This is also a good example of the rule that in time the thing which is meant to be warded off invariably finds its way into the very means which is being used to ward it off. (“Some Characteristics of Obsessives,” Standard Edition, trans. Strachey, vol. 10, 225.) The rule is that of an auto–immune reaction, when the body’s own immune system, designed to protect the body against foreign enemies, turns against what it is supposed to protect, and takes itself, its own body, as the enemy. The very means that aims to protect you from external danger becomes the source of a terrible internal threat. Derrida extends the biological metaphor and illustrates the Freudian rule with the example of the Algerian government cancelling the results of free elections because the winners were antidemocratic fundamentalists.2 In order to protect democracy, democracy is cancelled: The apotropaic act that is supposed to turn danger away from democracy (by frustrating the election of fundamentalists) becomes the instrument of democracy’s demise–cancelling elections. It is like Theseus, turned to stone, by looking at the head of the Gorgon Medusa that he had cut off and attached to his shield to ward off his enemies. Medusa is the name of the most powerful apotropaia.
In Freud and Derrida you find the same figure of mise en abyme. If you think of the enemy as something to be contained by the defense then the moment the enemy becomes the defense, is introduced within the defense, then the defense is worse than the disease, the enemy has become oneself. The contained contains what is supposed to contain it and suicidally destroys both contained and container. The neurotic gets worse, the patient dies. It is the fact of such fictions that the discipline of literary studies allows us to study and teach.
I could have named other forms of negativity derived from literature. Some that come to mind: Sartre’s “Négatités” in L’être et le néant; The “hymen” in Derrida’s reading of Mallarmé deconstructing the notion of representation, which always presupposes a first and a second. I would add the theory of the Commodity in the first book of Capital, where the commodity acquires a life of its own and tables dance. There is the figure of the “third” in Lacan’s “Séminaire sur ‘La Lettre Volée’ in Ecrits, where the “third” is never where it is, in which truth is used to tell a lie. Or Kant’s Zeck ohne Zweck , the aim without aim of the artistic artifact, in Derrida’s reading of that formula in Kant’s Third Critique (in La verité en peinture.) Or to continue with our figure: Consider de Man’s reading (in Allegories of Reading) of metalepsis in Nietzsche, a rhetorical figure that names the sort of après coup that occurs when an effect is taken to be a cause, or vice versa, as in the example of “tongue” to mean language. What comes after comes before and vice versa: the contained contains the container.
There are many other forms of negativity, of fictional lies, that produce surprising effects in reality, arising in circumstances that affect the body, both corporeal and political. But they are unpredictable, unable to be programmed or tested, irresponsible and unreliable. Literature offers us the gift of such negativities; they are, explicitly or not, the object of its study, what risks being lost as Literature is absorbed into the literary and subsumed to historical or sociological considerations. The study of literature, as Jonathan Culler says “[offers] evidence of the autonomous potential of language, of the uncontrollable figural basis of forms, which cannot therefore serve as the basis of reliable cognition.” (Culler, The Literary in Theory, Stanford, California: Stanford press, 2007, p.94.) The study of literature, uncontrolled and unreliable, is more necessary than ever, as fictions are more and more successfully exploited by totalitarian forces.
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 This paper was first given at the “Undisciplined Knowledge? Franco-American Interdisciplinarity in the Humanities” Conference, a French Studies event held on March 2-3, 2007 at Cornell University, Ithaca, NY. A French version of this text appeared in the issue of Labyrinthe entitled La fin des disciplines? (Laurent Dubreuil ed.; Paris: Maisonneuve & Larose; 2007).
 Richard Klein is a Professor of French Literature at Cornell University. He is the author of Cigarettes are Sublime (Duke UP), Eat Fat (Pantheon), and Jewelry Talks: a novel thesis (Pantheon). He has recently focused his attention on troubadour poetry, written in Old Occitan, with its legacy of courtly love. His interests extend to the social and ideological conflicts out of which that poetry arose and declined in the Twelfth and Thirteenth centuries. Email: email@example.com. Professional webpage: http://www.arts.cornell.edu/romance/french/french_faculty/klein.html
 Je me souviens d'avoir lu dans un livre de philosophie que mentir c'est cacher une vérité que l'on doit manifester. Il suit bien de cette définition que taire une vérité qu'on n'est pas obligé de dire n'est pas mentir ; mais celui qui non content en pareil cas de ne pas dire la vérité dit le contraire, ment-il alors, ou ne ment-il pas ? Selon la définition, l'on ne saurait dire qu'il ment ; car s'il donne de la fausse monnaie à un homme auquel il ne doit rien, il trompe cet homme, sans doute, mais il ne le vole pas.
 Je m’amusais à regarder les carafes que les gamins mettaient dans la Vivonne pour prendre les petits poissons, et qui, remplies par la rivière, où elles sont à leur tour encloses, à la fois « contenant » aux flancs transparents comme une eau durcie, et “contenu” plongé dans un plus grand contenant de cristal liquide et courant, évoquaient l’image de la fraîcheur d’une façon plus délicieuse et irritante qu’elles n’eussent fait sur une table servie, en ne la montrant qu’en fuite dans cette allitération perpétuelle entre l’eau sans consistance où les mains ne pouvaient la
1 Paul de Man Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, Proust. New Haven, Yale University Press, p. 64. R. Klein, “Negativity and Literature,” November 07 7
capter et le verre sans fluidité où le palais ne pourrait en jouir. A la recherche du temps perdu, “Combray.” (Paris : Quarto Gallimard, p.139)
2 Jacques Derrida, Philosophy in a Time of Terror, ed. G. Borradori. Chicago: Chicago U. Press, 2003.