Linguistic Nihilism and the Text as Work

Yesterday, I went to see a lecture about the Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgård. The lecturer was wonderful and confessed to being obsessed with the work of Bernard Stiegler. I knew very little about either of them besides that the first volume of Knausgård’s book has been waiting on my shelf for a while now and that Stiegler is a fairly impenetrable Derridean philosopher. The lecture clarified many things, but left me shaken. As we were walking back to our offices, I quipped that I was slightly traumatized by what he had said.

The topic of selfies and narrative selfies came up and as a result the spatial and temporal impossibility of self-description was discussed. The spatial distance between the self and self-description was examined in terms of portraits and mirrors. Temporal distance was discussed in terms of memory, telling one’s life story and getting ever closer to the indescribable present. I thought about the description of indescribable objects like peak-experience hallucinations and remembered that very often in such descriptions language is deemed useless as a tool for describing the experience. What authors often seem to do is to turn towards language itself in a desperate effort to explain their predicament. Some, like the author of the Hashish-Eater Fitz Hugh Ludlow, begin to dream of a divine language that could describe anything and everything. On such occasions, one is confronted with a choice. One either experiences a fall into linguistic nihilism or renews one’s faith in the power of language to truly connect with the world in a meaningful way.

What traumatized me was the realization that I was not sure if what Knausgård was doing was an interesting portrait of a mind contemplating itself or simply the mythologizing of language after the realization that such contemplation is, in the end, completely pointless and perhaps even harmful. During the discussion after the lecture, it seemed like the room was split as well, although everyone maintained their composure like real professionals. I fell and fell hard. What is to be done when one’s belief in the power of language to present deep meaning in the world is gone, when all becomes surface and mere decoration tacked onto a noumenal reality? The only thing one can do is get back to work, now as a decorator.

An old professor of mine (who is no longer with us) once gave a lecture in which he talked about the terms “work” and “text”. According to him literary works stopped being called “works” sometime during the birth of post-cultures like postmodernism and poststructuralism. They spoke of texts and the opened up literary canon was renewed as a sea of text. They were perhaps describing an important change in western culture, but their terminology was simply wrong. When linguistic nihilism prevails and suspends the belief in the power of language to assign meaning, text can only become work. When the world is made language, it seems like we have arrived at a point where we can call our culture pan-linguistic. On the other hand, we lose sight of the world and the world which language previously described is lost forever. All becomes surface and surface becomes all there is. There is no room in modern culture to mythologize language. In the beginning there was the word, but the word does not become flesh.

At such an impenetrable impasse, the cul-de-sac of our culture, how can language be anything but work? Maintenance work, decorative work, communication and translation, like house work in personal relationships, a tool bereft of its aura. There are no real insights or flashes of genius and texts differ from each other only in their surface qualities. I read all this in literature and philosophy classes, but only recently have I begun to wonder why everyone seems to be fine with it. Do they not see the magnitude of the loss? Perhaps they do, or perhaps they do not care. It is one thing to have such things explained to you, but it is another thing entirely to feel it in your gut. The mind recoils, the heart is starved of meaning and, still, one has to go on and get back to work.

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