poetix (old content)

oh build your ship of death

"Ought" Implies "Can't"

Much taken by Daniel-at-Different-Maps’s take on Beckett in his recent post on “writing as drive”:

This is the proper meaning and value of Beckett, the Beckett ceaselessly cited who cannot, must, will go on - this resolution, equating to much more than mere stoicism; amounting to a kind of beautiful and stolen freedom. In this instance, which might be any instance whatever, Beckett realizes his own impotence, his own irrelevance, his own spurious stupidity, but despite it all, he steals himself and continues. In this specific case, continues to write - the truth that Beckett expresses here occurs at an immanent textual moment, relating immediately to further textual production, but - contra all vulgar Derrideans, who would genuflect before language - this is not the important point, which is rather the following: what Beckett decides here, in this phrase, in this moment, elevates writing - elevates it by subtracting from it, manoeuvring thus on this basis to change it from an exalted activity - vulnerable on such a basis to the implacably reactionary superego, into an incidental and cool generic procedure of truth.

“I can’t go on, I must go on, I’ll go on,” - the key term is this middle one, temptation switches sides here, becomes a temptation to quit, from the original temptation to move, which had in fact had spurred the initial beginning, at some point before this phrase even has begun to be seen. In other words, taking leave from a personal and idiosyncratic pathology, Beckett has become unable to proceed on this basis, for the reason that this basis now seems pathetic and weak against the tremendous weight of the work he has done, which threatens to explode language itself. The excess of this supremely immodest consequence is now oppressing the writer in an insistent and authoritative voice: “Who am I to say these things, do these things, who I am to write in this ridiculous way?” The genius of Beckett is he realizes the answer, “I am nobody at all - and for the very reason, the reason that I am nobody at all, I am anyone - and since I am anyone, I will go on, with this axiom, to serve as my watchword: because somebody could.”

First of all, this is quite correct: that “I can’t go on; I must go on; I’ll go on” is not an expression of stoicism, of the “must” outweighing the “can’t” in some weary subject dutifully (or resignedly) soldiering on. “Must” and “can’t” are in contradiction: precisely nothing can “go on” unmodified from the aporetic moment of their convocation. To put it another way, “I can’t” is something other than a somewhat hyperbolic synonym for “I don’t feel like it”: it is a statement of fact about some “I”, and about what is and is not possible for that “I”. An “I” that “can’t go on” cannot simply decide to go on anyway (or accept the necessity of going on, irrespective of its own inclinations in the matter): whatever it is that goes on, from that point, cannot be the same “I” as it was before.

It is on this basis that it is possible to locate the violence of the primary school teacher’s perennial insistance that “there’s no such word as can’t”: what this amounts to is a demand that the child to whom it is addressed, an “I” from whom some demonstration of performativity is expected but for whom the required action is impossible, be destroyed and replaced by an “I” with the necessary competance. What makes this violent, however, is not the demand itself, but the refusal to recognise that the demand can only be fulfilled through the destitution of the “I” to whom it is addressed. It is violent because it posits, in place of the child as she is (and will have, perhaps painfully, to cease to be), a child who is already capable, who will never have been anything other than capable, and whose temporary appearance of incapacity is merely a sign of stubbornness.

The instructor may believe with the utmost sincerity that the potential to do X is already latent in the child, and that the only obstacles to its realization come either from a deficit in “self-esteem” or from the machinations of some perverse will-to-fail. According to this belief, there is no radical discontinuity between the failing child and the child who will one day succeed: failure is without irony redefined as “deferred success”. But Beckett’s “Try again. Fail again. Fail better” cannot adequately be paraphrased as “Try again. Defer success again. Approximate success more closely with each iteration”: the standard by which each failure is to be judged “better” than the last is the standard of failure, not that of success (cf Ewa Ponowska Ziarek’s The Rhetoric of Failure for more on this distinction: there, “failure” emerges as something like Derridean destinerrance, the deflection of the telos of the subject by the other).

The subject for whom “ought” implies “can” will never emerge from the tarpit of Beckett’s “I can’t go on. I must go on”. There is however, for this subject, another subject: the transferential subject-supposed-to-, who is also by implication the subject-supposedly-able-to-, the subject for whom the (morally or practically) impossible is possible. That this other subject is a projection, formed out of the subject’s own desire for full competance, is no obstacle to the operation of transference, in which some arbitrary figure - for example that of the analyst in the Lacanian clinic - is elected to bear the weight of the subject’s expectations, without possessing to any degree the means to satisfy them. This, I would suggest, is the position of Daniel’s writer who “goes on”, who assumes “the tremendous weight of the work he has done” in spite of being entirely bereft of any personal attribute or competance that would make him worthy of it. To be the destitute writer-who-goes-on, for whom writing has become “an incidental and cool generic procedure of truth”, is to be in the position of the hapless transferential object of the now-blocked, incapable writer whose pathological immodesty first set the process of writing in motion.