Authority : Avital Ronell

II. The Literary Prompt

Even something as politically inflected and ethically driven as the problem of authority may summon up literature in order to give itself a running start, a wide enough space in which to contemplate its many hidden capacities. To the extent that they have felt engaged by the problem, political and sociological theories have by turns considered the parameters and depth of authority’s elusive grip. Cognitive approaches have yielded information and given some food for thought, some axioms by which to measure the range and pull of authority and its performative aspects. Still other approaches involve returning to tranquilized textual instances for the purpose of tapping stores of another type of knowledge, without bringing up the noise of know-it-all discursivities and the voracious paradigms from which they are constituted. Sometimes it becomes necessary to explain again why literature, running according to a different metronome of being and prone to altogether contrasting dependencies, summons us to examine the recesses of political exigency. Literature, in the form of fiction or as poetic prompter, always accompanies the thought of political injury and persecuted otherness.

This fact, in gallant Nietzschean terms, may attract both good and bad valences to the extent that poetry and art have been viciously appropriated to killer historical causes and acts, but at the same time, with Hölderlinian strokes of innocence, they inescapably play against empirical-historical currents. It is important in any case for me not to succumb to the temptation, increasing by the day, to write in step with objectivizing science or to produce clean-cut effects of some sort of descriptive politology or political science. I don’t think that I risk such an identity crossover—yet, we practitioners and shouters and readers, whether coming from the precincts of Wissenschaft or its somewhat edgier outskirts, frequently want the same things, decry the same cognitive distortions. One cannot simply deny the good old-fashioned solidarity that binds us, even where methods clash and turf wars stir in the still of the writing night. Some of my friends remain non-readers, solid descriptors. They even claim to cling to transparent utterance, rhetorically uncluttered argument—the hard and fast reasoning that overrides the literary snafu. In fact, they’re making a comeback, undeterred by the sense that uninterrogated clarity has proven to fuel the forces of mendaciousness.

Theoretical toughness has lost, in many areas of contiguous reflection, its essential verve. I don’t blame anyone, I just strap on my witness-consciousness to note that the hard-hitting punch of critical inscription is by the looks of it (though looks can deceive) on the decline. One is beaten down by softer approaches or, rather: a crop of ex-theorists has thrown in the towel, having been in some cases pummeled by the stupefying steadiness of a numbed and dumbing body politic; or, worn down by effects of certain aspects of common technologies, one has given in to the sheer distress of association with a brutal polity. Who has not cringed or cried or lost courage in the face of the American deconstitution, something that continues to erode confidence in the reparability of the world? Why should the widespread disregard for complexity, care, and existential holding patterns not intrude upon critical grammars and theoretical practices? On another level my question concerns, as previously recorded, where the political poses problems—a question that takes one beyond thematic deliveries and rhetorical tranquility.

I, for my part, no longer believe in Kantian intelligibilities (which, I know, had their limits from day one—a cause of Heinrich von Kleist’s nervous breakdown and the direct reason for a slew of historical panic attacks). Now, how does pained existence get soothed or primed and prepared for the battle of existence by the literary intercession? How does authorship, dead or alive, feed the machinery of authority? I’ll suspend this part of the equation provisionally and ask to what extent fiction constellates the unrecognizable advent of that which terrorizes. If I were to say what terror is and fill it up, seal it with content, I would have eluded its unshakable grip, surrendering the essential unknown to determination and cognition.

We know a few things that may scare and scar, but such knowledge does not amount to capturing effects of terror. Wanting to get in touch with the particular qualities of a terror base that marks shared being—what Jean-Luc Nancy designates as being-in-common—I was often brought to a halt by the immediacy of intrusive phenomena, toward which I was trying to establish a scholarly distance. Now the government, like the FDA, is telling us how much terror to take and from where, with color-coded signals. What has been packaged as terror can be in fact misleading.

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