On living authors

Last night, I shared with My Esteemed Partner some of my latest gleanings from a systematic Agamben reading project I have been working on over the past couple months, she asked whether I had ever had such an intensive knowledge of any writer before. The only comparison I could make was Zizek, at least at the point when I wrote the book (and for about the next five years). In both cases, I believe I am seeing a gradual development in thinkers that most critics try to either vindicate as truly systematic from day one or else dismiss (or sometimes praise) as merely fragmentary and occasional.

I wonder about this preference for systematicity. Why would it be somehow *better* if Agamben and Zizek had done their “whole thing” from their very earliest work and were just filling in the details of the system? In American academia, I most often detect scorn for people who seem to continually rewrite their dissertation without thinking many new thoughts. And do we really want to think of *ourselves* as trapped in those incohate youthful insights of our earliest work? Again, why would this be better?

It seems to me that this desire for absolute systematicity over time is unique to literature on living authors, and it may almost be a “marketing” issue more than anything. It’s as though there’s a fear that no one will want to get on board with a thinker unless they can be assured that they represent a Whole Big Thing — or perhaps an anxiety that no one will view it as worthwhile to read and study their complete corpus unless it all belongs together.

For my part, I think it’s more interesting to think in terms of development — even if that term has progressivist connotations — because that makes the living thinker more of a model for our own work. How do you rethink and recombine your key insights for new purposes? How do you decide what to keep and what to leave aside? How much do you emphasize the change or leave it to your audience to figure it out?

2 thoughts on “On living authors

  1. Having finished a book on a living author last summer, I very much sympathize with this post. I certainly present his work as if it were always heading somewhere, somewhere at least implicit in the earliest work and much more explicit later. I ignore a good chunk of the early work insofar as it does not fit the arc of his career as I narrativize it and I don’t do very much to acknowledge the extent to which later work might change our understanding of earlier work, how it might move the center of his career arc further to the right (assuming a left to right movement in the timeline), and so on. Oh, sure, I make some noise in the intro about all of this, but my hedging there does not prevent me from doing what I do.

    Setting aside my own issues here, when I taught a class on William Burroughs I used Tim Murphy’s Wising up the Marks as the glue that held it together. Murphy, who is a friend, offers a thorough (and early) reading of Burroughs’s career in terms of what he calls “amodernism,” Burroughs’s attempt to break from of the modern/postmodern “progression” that plagues discussions of American lit in the second half of the twentieth century. Amodern literature and theory refuse conventional narratives AND refuse to fully devolve into fragments and endless regress. Of course, Murphy discusses all of Burroughs’s career chronologically and at least implies that the late work solves problems that the early work raised but could not yet address.

    I often wonder if we simply cannot deal with any body of work outside of such tendencies to create coherence, rectilinearity, teleology, or what have you. Is this simply a given. Is it a function of the discourses and epistemologies that we have inherited and inhabited to such an extent that even when we read those writers and thinkers least amenable to critical knowledge practices that we wind up reproducing them as a matter of course. Do we simply write that way? Do we simply read that way, even when the writing itself suggests that other methods or techniques are necessary?

    This all becomes very frustrating when I acknowledge how difficult all of this is to escape. Even if I *could* think, read, or write otherwise, would I actually do that? What would doing so cost me in terms of publication opportunities or promotion? If I were able to do criticism differently (which I very much doubt, fwiw), how would the incentives structures of contemporary academia reward or punish me for doing so?

  2. I actually tend to be quite suspicious of the imposition off systematicity to authors as it usually comes as an afterthought that amalgams everything into very limited topics. Agamben himself wrote a few prefaces that point in that direction, and while you can see his 1980s writings open the door to homo saver, I actually believe you would never be able to get to homo saver from those writings. As someone who has only published on kojève (and the main argument of the first section of my only article was to claim that kojève, perhaps consciously, didn’t meet his own requirements for the systematicity he longed for) I doubt whether your argument only applies to living authors.

    Do I would suggest that quest forsystematicity might actually come from the way academia works nowadays. It’s not as easy to sell a summary/abstract of a text that does not take your author as systematic unless your main argument is that your author is not systematic.

    Wouldn’t it be much more interesting if we read all texts as not being systematic to grasp what’s actually happening there and possibly be surprised by the consistency of some concerns? This makes it much harder to quote across texts to sustain our arguments but it can also be much more challenging in terms of outcomes.

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