Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Sur-Representation: Revolution & Repetition

Sur-Representation: Revolution & Repetition

“Philosophical writing [must] continually confront the question of representation.” [1] – Walter Benjamin, Ursprung der Deutsche Trauerspiel

The question of representation must indeed be confronted and the impossibility of making do without representation entirely. For, even in the least representative poetic evocation there remains the fact that even Wortsalat has as its building block words that in principle do represent objects. Moreover, the logic of total escape or opposition presupposes the binary logic of mutually exclusive alternatives, which we now know in light of quantum mechanics and subsequent developments in physics to be entirely superseded. Except in human language and quite possibly the forms of human thought. Perhaps there is way to think and to write that can resist the reduction of the infinite richness of experience that all representational-conceptual thought has as its price. A revolutionary possibility whereby experience might break through, within representations themselves, whereby experience would be, to borrow one of Blanchot's formulations, “affirmed in a negation that, while opening a void and stopping time, also point[s] toward the future... a transgression: an innocent transgression.”[2]  Such a possibility for thought and language makes representations of experience transgress their own limits, and the surplus over representation, its sur-representational excess, would no longer represent or signify, but mark an instance of the exemplary. Of course these instances in the course of a “treatise” on time will be ephemeral, and representative discourse remains as an instrument of thinking, but they indicate and articulate that which is to come. It is to make use of “representation as digression.”[3]

The exemplary must be understood as the singular, historically determined instance of the idea: the extreme, excessive moment of the dialectic, in which the singular can be nothing other than a repetition of the idea that makes the idea itself possible. Singular instances, exemplary instances, of one and the same idea or experience can – and must, at times – stand in relationship of contradiction with regard to one another, while at the same time differ only according to their historical-material context. Every idea is originally overdetermined, insofar as the category of origin describes “that which emerges from the process of becoming and disappearance”[4] – meaning (singular/exemplary instances & ideas, e.g. the monad, are “non-univocal” a “'variant' of the – 'invariant,' structure of the totality.”[5])

The exemplary cannot be reduced to a mere exemplar of a type, or to a representation of experience or of an idea. The fact that “this time it is different” hinges upon an excess, a surplus, without which the exemplary would reduce to either representation or instantiation. Such an excess (or remainder) is decisive, it makes each instance of the exemplary different, sur-representational. Taubes' “Notes on Surrealism” indicates, in part, the sense of the sur- in sur-representation, “There is a remainder indicated by the prefix sur in 'surrealism.' What meaning can this prefix have in this materialist context? ...Poetry is the only beyond, not because it bridges 'this world' and the one 'beyond,' Above and Below. It is the beyond itself.  The word does not bear testimony, rather it is itself transcendence.”[6] It is, in our sense, that excess which goes beyond – immanently – an occurrence within the bounds of the quotidian world and expresses experience in its truth.

Such occurrences are, beyond a doubt, historically determined while they simultaneously challenge and disrupt historical determination, as such. If this is in fact the case, they are not merely historically determined; rather, they are over-determined, understood in nearly the same sense as the Althusserian concept.
Overdetermination designates the following essential quality of contradiction: the reflection in contradiction itself of its conditions of existence. This is not a univocal 'situation.' It is not just its situation 'in principle' (the one it occupies in the hierarchy of instances in relation to the determinant instance: in society, the economy) nor just its situation 'in fact' but the relation of this situation in fact to this situation in principle.[7]

What's more: this over-determination is itself at least double. As the “situation 'in principle'” can only be said to exist as an idea developed in the course of time by its various exemplary repetitions, overdetermination must be understood spatio-temporally and conceptually.

In the exemplary, the sur-representational excess is the idea itself instantiated simultaneously de novo and as a repetition. Excess is the essence of the sur-representational: it is by means of this surplus representation that novelty can emerge to develop and adumbrate the idea. It is also by exceeding, outstripping, the images and forms of the past that such events and such times release their emancipatory potential. The sur­-representational excess of the exemplary instance, forming a constellation with its combined fore– and after-history, its innumerable repetitions, would present its truth.

Truth is in transgression; the truth of an epoch in its manner of exceeding and violating the limits and constraints of past and place. Our truth, our origin and goal, the New, is at once what is most foreign and what is most familiar to us, it is the home we have never had – the place after which we have always sought where we have always already been. We catch sight of this (home) land in the moment and movement of rupture, in crisis and dis-aster – in breaking with old stars and constellations; in this ephemeral image we are at home in time: this is our moment – our kairos – our chance. (Images of Truth) This image is an image of redemption – if redemption is conceived as the end of alienation, and if alienation is understood as “all that binds man to a nation and time,” a point of near-total agreement for not only Benjamin and Blanchot, but Bataille and Bloch as well. This is what is fundamental to any genuinely radical thought or practice, as the final sentences of The Principle of Hope emphatically state:

True genesis is not at the beginning but at the end, and it starts to begin only when society and existence become radical, i.e. grasp their roots. But the root of history is working, creating a human being who reshapes and overhauls the given facts. Once he has grasped himself and established what is his, without expropriation and alienation, in real democracy, there arises something which shines into the childhood of all and where no one has yet been: Home.[8]

If it is true that the principle of all history heretofore has been alienation (whether its manifest, historically determined face is one of dispossession, exile and eschatological expectations, or one of rootedness, nostalgia and fantasies of decadence and the autochthonous) it is our task, not only to “pull the emergency brake,” but to bring this “history” to an end, to clear a way for a new beginning, a new story, illuminated by the dawning of the New.

[1] Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, Trans. John Osborne (London & New York: Verso, 1988), 27.
[2] Maurice Blanchot, “Exemplary Acts,”Political Writings: 1953-1993, Trans. Zakir Paul (New York: Fordham University Press, 2010), 98-9. 98.
[3] Benjamin, 28.
[4] Benjamin, 45.
[5] Louis Althusser, “On the Materialist Dialectic,” For Marx, Trans. Ben Brewster (London & New York: Verso, 1996), 209.
[6] Jacob Taubes, “Notes on Surrealism,” From Cult to Culture, 104.
[7] Althusser, For Marx, 209.
[8] Ernst Bloch, The Principle of Hope, Volume Three, 1375-6.

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