The Singularity of Literature
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Winner of the ESSE (European Society for the Study of English) Book Award for Literature 2006
Literature and the literary have proved singularly resistant to definition. Derek Attridge argues that such resistance represents not a dead end, but a crucial starting point from which to explore anew the power and practices of Western art.
In this lively, original volume, the author:
- considers the implications of regarding the literary work as an innovative cultural event, both in its time and for later generations;
- provides a rich new vocabulary for discussions of literature, rethinking such terms as invention, singularity, otherness, alterity, performance and form;
- returns literature to the realm of ethics, and argues the ethical importance of the literary institution to a culture;
- demonstrates how a new understanding of the literary might be put to work in a 'responsible,' creative mode of reading.
- The Singularity of Literature is not only a major contribution to the theory of literature, but also a celebration of the extraordinary pleasure of the literary, for reader, writer, student or critic.
hitherto unthinkable, of that which is necessarily excluded. After the creation and reception of an original work, the cultural ﬁeld is different; some old possibilities have disappeared and some new ones have been born—the latter consisting, as we noted earlier, both of formulae that can be imitated and of an unaccommodated alterity that may act as a spur to further originality. This explains why the history of Western art evinces very few retrograde movements, in which original work A creates
constituted by exclusions and tensions, so creative reading can occur only because the reader’s idioculture is fractured and pressured and thus open to alterity. To invert the statement with which the previous chapter ended, in a creative reading it is only as a singularity that I can respond to the singularity of the work. Surprise and wonder Creative reading, like any full response to alterity, is, as I have continually stressed, both active and passive. Focusing on the active aspect, I have
time (though often this is specified as well), but we must be aware of the situatedness and datedness—in one sense of the term—of the act of writing. To be able to verify that the signature is indeed a signature, however, and not just a proper name (inscribed by the bearer), the reader needs to be able to recognize it, either by an act of memory or by the act of physically checking it against other instances. Without such an act, it remains merely an inscribed name. The being of the signature,
it involves me in. I put myself in the addressee’s place—no, the poem puts me in that place—but I also deduce, construct, an addressee who is not me, a white South African man, out alone after dark, almost anywhere in that country, startled by an encounter with a black person—probably a man, too—whom he does not know.9 I am and I am not that man as I read the poem. Serote’s words are neither reassurance nor threat; they stage these impulses as events. The rest of the poem, which I will not
obligation: understand how little you understand me, translate my untranslatability, learn me by heart and thus learn the otherness that inhabits the heart.8 It means suspending all those carefully applied codes and conventions and reinventing them, as if this work brought them into being even while it proved them limited in their scope. Levinas writes of the relation to the other as that of hostage to captor, emphasizing the randomness with which I feel myself summoned by the other—not because I