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Literature's Revolutionary Force


Literature's Revolutionary Force


Juan Manuel Garrido Wainer and Alexander García Düttmann

How is literature a force of resistance? Can it escape normalization and the inaction of death? Philosophers Juan Manuel Garrido Wainer and Alexander García Düttmann discuss Alex's essay 'The Art of Resistance', exploring the political character of literary fiction, literature as a living force, and the political strength of powerlessness.

Santiago de Chile, 2nd October 2015

Dear Alex,

I am writing this letter after having read your short piece, The Art of Resistance. I am writing because I was unable to understand what you meant by “resistance.” You claim that literature resists normativity and normalization. Literature resists, although not because literature proposes an alternative world, a world that we may want to be the one in which we live. That would make literature something normal and normative again. Literature is not fiction (you claim), let alone utopia (one could add to your claim). It is not politics and it is not institution. You suggest that literature gathers, enhances language that is abandoned or rejected by institutions, even literary institutions. Literature lives off what is excluded from institutions.

I say literally that literature lives. Life is what philosophers from Plato and Aristotle to Nietzsche and Heidegger have characterized as a phenomenon of power. Power to produce, to grow, to nourish, to reproduce, to love. We think of life as power even when life is understood as becoming impotent or ceasing to be (see Heidegger’s lessons on potentiality in Aristotle’s Metaphysics). At first sight, power is not resistance, at least insofar as resistance resists power. Now, death is the only thing that stricto sensu resists power. Are you then proposing death? You cannot be seriously proposing that. Death cannot be the matter of a project or proposition. So I continue with my question. Power is the production or self-production of life. Politics is the interpretation of human power. Politics presupposes the representation of life as a system of ends that orientate the production or self-production of human life. Institutions are the representations of the ends of life. Institutions open the space for political action and deliberation. For that reason, revolutions against institutions of power are themselves institutions of power. The implicit fantasy of any institution is to exhaust the meaning of human life, which should enable human beings to control and use every process of life’s production or self-production. Institutions aim at programming the growth and development of life.

Nevertheless, we think of life as power because life is not something given once and for all, seizable in some representation of what life is, as complex as you may wish this representation to be. Life (this is the hypothesis) is not something given, not even a thing in the process of self-actualization. Life is the non-given: that which comes to be or consists in coming to be: a pure process of not ceasing to be. Life is not a particular process, the process of being of this particular being (or representation). Life is the process itself, the process as such. In that process, of course, all kinds of things emerge, mutate, multiply, grow in complexity, decay or die.

Suppose a company wants to produce a drug. Surely some representation or narrative about life underlies this purpose. However, neither the company nor the narrative at stake can produce by itself the drug. The laws of the market and the laws of cultural self-representation of human life are not the laws for the production of that kind of object. Therefore, the company must entrust the job to something else: a techno-scientific system for causal research and objectification. Systems of this sort are historical, extremely complex, and they pervade all kinds of institutions. The company (the market, the representation of human life) won’t be able to control the activities that are specific to the production of the very same objects that are believed necessary to increase its own power. Among these activities, you may count human education and knowledge, human imagination and human thinking. The company won’t be able to control the outcomes of such activities: not only may the drug never be found, but all kinds of unexpected objects may accidentally appear while working to obtain or develop it (new knowledge, new instruments, new methods, new technicians, etc.). The laws for the production of objects (and human thought, education, imagination, etc.) are contingent with respect to the institutional narratives about human life. The institutional power of the company has no power over the very same things capable of returning more power. Shouldn’t we conclude that my imaginary system for causal objectification resists power, resistance that seems to be inherent or necessary to power?

Suppose a political leader wants to transform universities into industries of useful or necessary knowledge for the development of the State. Don’t you think that sooner or later she will be confronted exactly by the same paradox? An absolute institutional power determined to control and capitalize on even the tiniest processes of life will likely end up in self-annihilation.

Since life is not a thing but a pure process of being, life is essentially incomplete, relative, non-absolute. Let me define resistance as power’s incompleteness. Incompleteness is both the finitude of power and what sets power in motion, what makes it powerful and effective. Were resistance to power totally alien to power, in sum powerless, then we would be speaking of death. In this light, I cannot but qualify as extremely naïve and wrong Blanchot’s words you quote in your text: “May 68 is distinguished from a traditional revolution on the grounds that those who participated in the events were not driven by a will to gain power or propelled by a project to replace one form of power with another.” A drive of that genre, a drive without power, without project or propulsion, is what the Critique of Pure Reason’s Table of Nothing would have called an ens rationis. An extremely hygienic wishful thinking.

As for you, Alex, you do not seem satisfied with simply noting that something in life (literature) resists life’s institutions of power. And yours is not an invitation to death (like Bartleby’s “I would prefer not to”). Rather, it is an invitation to practice, to encourage, to support resistance. “The resistance that should be encouraged, supported, and practiced is the resistance that lies in, and derives from, literature’s submissive acceptance of heterogeneous and incompatible utterances that are not intended as literary utterances, at least not in the first place.” Therefore, what you call “resistance” should not be totally alien to the normal and normative meaning of the political. Or is it? What is properly political within the practice of resistance, Alex? And how does a politics of resistance, or art of resistance, not disavow the initial idea of a resistance to normativity and normality?

besos, Juan Manuel


Bad Nauheim, 6th of October 2015

Dear Juan Manuel,

What is resistance, you ask. And I am tempted to answer: resistance is whatever forces me, or incites me, to do something that requires an effort, builds up a tension, causes me to suffer, or gives me pleasure. Resistance makes things hard, harder than I wish them to be. It hurts. It blocks viable options and interferes with sensible solutions. There is something dumb and obtuse about resistance, something irritating, something that escapes my grasp. No matter how much it may be embedded in a discourse of explanation and justification, no matter how reasonable and how necessary it may appear, resistance always also amounts to an intractable tautology. It just resists. As it resists something, this or that, there is an excess in resistance without which it would turn into a force of normalisation and normativity, integration and institutionalisation, consensus and conformism. Normalisation appropriates, exploits and channels resisting forces but can never do so entirely. If it succeeded, it would fall prey to the resistance of all resistances, to death. Resistance is almost like a fabulous literary invention.

In my short paper, I introduce a notion of literature that I use as a synonym for fiction. At the same time, I also distinguish it from fiction. Literature partakes of fiction and yet it is not simply fiction, at least not if we define fiction as a usage of language that resists the introduction of distinctions according to established practices, habits, or rules. The moment we decide to read a text as a piece of fiction, we enter a strange domain in which we can no longer say that fiction is opposed to reality, for example. It is as if suddenly we had become attentive to those linguistic effects of vagueness, uncertainty, exaggeration, overdetermination, and undecidability that we normally exclude from our perception. The reason why literature is also different from fiction lies in the fact that, up to a point, it is itself an institution, and that in order to produce a literary work a certain type of intentional activity is needed, as well as a certain set of skills. In short, literature, inasmuch as it partakes of fiction, resists all efforts to attribute to it a specific and unmistakable function or even an essence. Perhaps, if we understand it in this manner, fiction becomes synonymous with what, in your letter, you call “life”. To say that it resists normality and normativity is simply a way of saying that it resists all attempts at identifying it and saying what it is. When literature proves resistant, it is not because of a special concern with what is excluded from the normality of institutionalised discourses. Anything that is conveyed by an institutionalised discourse can turn into literature, or fiction. Fiction, literary or not, has no distinctive object that qualifies it as fiction.

Let’s turn to Blanchot now. He is not the only one to say that the unwillingness to gain power and to substitute one form of institutionalised power with another must be considered a characteristic of May 68. Deleuze makes a related point, as does Nancy. (I am not trying to impose the authority of these philosophers upon you. I wish to incite you and myself to look closer at what they say before dismissing it as “naïve”.) Of course you will be able to find many counter-examples but perhaps in so doing you will also miss whatever it is that turns May 68 into the kind of event that fills Blanchot, Deleuze, and Nancy with enthusiasm. I believe that Foucault, who was rather critical of May 68, came across something similar in Iran ten years later. And I would add that even when resistance takes on the shape of a revolt, or a revolution, and seeks to replace one form of institutionalised power with another, an interruption must still occur that can be described as a suspension of the will to power. To the extent that the will to power has to be suspended for resistance to come into play, I would agree with the definition you suggest. Resistance marks “power’s essential incompleteness”.

What interests me in the short piece to which your letter refers is the impossibility of distinguishing between the fictitious and the real in such a moment of suspension. If politics relates to normality and normativity, such a moment has no place in it. If, on the contrary, politics relates to a radical transformation of institutionalised practices and discourses, to a transformation that is not merely partial but aims at society as a whole, then such a moment may well have something to do with politics.

There is, perhaps, a difficulty inherent in revolutionary politics, a difficulty to do with resistance. For at the moment in which something emerges in a given society that can be deemed a more or less collective resistance to what is perceived as an intolerable state of affairs or a life that has become unlivable, what happens is different from the social, political, historical everyday. Hence it is not reducible to the normal state of affairs. In a sense, riots, insurgencies, revolts, revolutions never fail, because the criteria for their success cannot be extracted from the normal course of things. And yet they must have a lasting impact upon it if they are not to vanish into some kind of ideality.

But must they? If they have an impact, they have an impact, be it only in the moment of enthusiasm I mention above.

besos, Alex


Juan Manuel Garrido Wainer is a professor of Philosophy at the Universidad Alberto Hurtado in Chile. His main research interests include Kant, Neo-Kantianism, and Phenomenology. He is the author of On Time, Being and Hunger: Challenging The Traditional Way of Thinking Life.

Alexander García Düttmann is Professor of Philosophical Aesthetics at the Universität der Künste Berlin and the Royal College of Art. In addition to his work in aesthetics and his collaborations with artists, he also writes on ethics and political philosophy. His publications include Visconti: Insights into Flesh and Blood; The Memory of Thought: An Essay on Heidegger and Adorno and, most recently, What Does Art Know? For An Aesthetics Of Resistance (2015).