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Tag Archives: Jacques Derrida

A Friendship In Twilight: Lockdown Conversations on Death and Life by Jack Miles & Mark C Taylor (Columbia University Press)

A Friendship In Twilight: Lockdown Conversations on Death and Life by Jack Miles & Mark C Taylor (Columbia University Press)

Mark C. Taylor is, according to Wikipedia, ‘a postmodern religious and cultural critic. He has published more than twenty books on theology, metaphysics, art and architecture, media, technology, economics, and postmodernity.’ That means he comes at these things mostly as a philosopher, his theology informed by and dependent upon language and thought and art, more Wittgenstein than study of religious texts. That Wikidescription doesn’t really do him justice: his books include studies of tattooing and piercing, specific conceptual and avant-garde artists, landscape design, the notion of silence, human perception of time, network cultures, pedagogy and the nature of universities, and Imagologies was one of the first books of media philosophy, written collaboratively about the then-developing internet and digital technologies. This man clearly thinks and thinks clearly about everything. 

Since 2004’s Grave Matters there have been a number of publications dealing with death, including Field Notes from Elsewhere: Reflections on Dying and Living (2009), Last Works: Lessons in Leaving (2018) and Abiding Grace: Time, Modernity and Death (also 2018). Like much of his work these are difficult books which deconstruct and process ideas, often using the theories of thinkers such as Kierkegaard, Hegel and Derrida (who Taylor knew).  A Friendship in Twilight is perhaps part of this series of books, but it is also something different.

The back cover blurb suggests the book is Miles and Taylor’s ‘plague journal’, a series of ‘raw and searching letters’, which reflect on (American) politics, the pandemic, catastrophe, literature, art, life and death. I’m not sure I’d call the writing raw, but it is intelligent and questioning, and the dialogue is intriguing, with Miles, a professor of religious studies and a former Jesuit, in many ways a more traditional believer than Taylor’s philosophical stance allows.

Neither, however, offer platitude or emotion as a way to talk to each other. If anything, the book suffers from the opposite, to the extent I longed for a bit of everyday joshing along with the high-flying references, allusions and debate. In a discussion about the construction of memory and recall of same, Miles tells Taylor that ‘[y]our intriguing connection of algorithm and olfaction reminds me, too, that in the human brain, the amygdala, controlling olfaction, is close to the memory centre, which is why scent is so powerfully able to evoke memory. Or so it has been argued.’ Well, yes, smell is a strong trigger for memories, along with music.

Elsewhere there is serious debate about Trump [remember him?], the spread of covid, and death. ‘Eternity and nothingness – two sides of the same coin’ says Taylor, before moving his discussion across the topics of black holes, cosmic webs, finite minds and infinity, ending his letter with a brief description of his garden and ‘the harsh winter that lies ahead’. Miles offers a robust reply, noting that Taylor’s ‘intellectual bias is always away from individual agency and toward large processes, either imponderable in principle or else perceptible by a visionary few.’ This, continues Miles, means that ‘rather than seeing fascism as the work of fascists, you [Taylor] elaborated a vision of technological determinism yielding political outcomes.’ Miles ‘own bias’ is ‘toward personal rather than impersonal agency’.

It’s heady stuff, and if at times it is rather elevated and academic, this correspondence clearly offered a lifeline of thoughtful dialogue rooted in long-term friendship which helped offset both the difficulties of life in lockdown, and the awareness that ‘It’s always a question of time. The clock is ticking-ticking for you, for me, for people lying in hospital beds, and ticking for the planet.’ Taylor has been seriously ill in the last few years and it has clearly affected him, along with much that was happening politically, socially and naturally. But Taylor is not simply raging against the dying of the light, he and his friend Jack Miles are still both thinking hard and offering us their opinions, processes, ideas and conclusions to the perplexing questions they feel enabled and challenged to answer.

Rupert Loydell 4th November 2022

That Which I Touch Has No Name by Jennifer K Dick (Black Spring Press Group)

That Which I Touch Has No Name by Jennifer K Dick (Black Spring Press Group)

The dialogic process of Jennifer Dick’s poems occurs in a multilingual context in which English, French and Italian interweave. The demolition of meaning and of naming provides space for a provisional reconstruction of language that evolves in sounds, alliteration and chains of words. They evoke each other in a multifaceted, polyphonic rhythm that envisages infinite possibilities. A Saussurian signifier and signified are proposed in a different perspective in which Derrida’s concept of the loss of the centre seems to be more relevant. Traditional forms are reviewed and opposed, giving way to multiple voices and different perceptions. These diverse interpretations are ‘off-the-centre’, as Derrida claims, as there is no centre, or any transcendental or universal entity to which we can refer or appeal. This concept of displacement opens the individual up to the construction of alternative views. 

     Dick’s poetry is a poetical journey that delves into philosophical and linguistic topics without an apparent logic and with no definite ending or goals. It is a wandering around, sometimes in circles and at other times in a winding path that emphasises the process rather than the conclusion. Fragments and echoes of everyday life and today’s society, such as political issues, shootings, women’s rights, scientific knowledge and the environment, are embedded in her discourse. In this way she explores language and therefore identity in a complex and comprehensive view of being human. Though we are strangers to ourselves, we take ‘another self […] into ourselves’ in an exchange that is promiscuous and generates intertextual connections. 

     References to Sappho, Erin Mouré’s A Frame of the  Book and the myth of Dibutades, the inventor of the art of modelling clay in Pliny the Elder’s Historia Naturalis, trace constant intertextual routes throughout the collection and give direction to the narratives. It is a conversation that marks displacement and loss but also a constant attempt at replacement: 

her herding herself forward and again to go

forth into this bright afternoon unaccompanied 

by the whorls of the whims of another’s loss

                                                                      this body

unlatched

absence in

the reassertion of self

space/shame in

a presence of griefs          (‘The Body As Message’)

Quotations from Mouré are signalled in grey notes as titles interweaved into the poems. They flag up the inconsistency of our reasoning when we try to make sense of ourselves through language. Words can deceive, and the only strategy for finding a way through the labyrinth is to create alternative connections:

collect stones, shells, ants, the carcasses

    of bees, derelict homing predilections

    combing the convex codex for a hived

    intermezzo  /  in stance  /  stead

                     of intermission

    stand               and              re-geolocate     

the space          (distance)        place                (‘Figurative Blight /’)

The myth of Butades’ daughter (Dibutades in French) is thoroughly explored in the central section, ‘Afterlife’. It is the legend of the origin of drawing and painting in which the protagonist outlines her lover’s shadow, which is cast on a wall. He will leave soon, so she wishes to keep the memory of him in the drawing. However, ‘Butades’ daughter possesses no independent name./She is not in the story./She is not.’ She is therefore erased from history, ‘an illusion,/a recollection of,/ a line traced onto the wall.’ Sections in French alternate with those in English in a partial translation that is also a reworking of the story. 

The ‘process/of redefinition’ culminates in the final poems in an ‘assay’, that is, an attempt to create through memory. The poems are ‘inkling of emerging vocabularies, linguistic minefields of the forgotten, written over, re-emergent’ (‘Assay’). Space and ‘body/time/language’ are in constant movement and transformation, projecting the outline of their shadows onto our uncertain existence. The collection examines the complexity of these fundamental concepts with precision and depth.

Carla Scarano D’Antonio 26th July 2022

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