Friday, November 20, 2009

Claustrophilia VI: Madhavi Menon

      Staying true to the metonymic cast of our reading for this afternoon, and trying to come up with an organising principle that would echo the title of the book and describe what we are gathered here to do, I’ve arrived at the term “clusterfuck.” This term seems to translate claustrophilia, but there is no etymological link between cluster and claustro, philia and fuck, other than a homonymic one. Indeed, the relation between claustrophilia and cluster-fuck does not cohere other than associatively, and my interest today is in the desire opened up by, or rather enclosed in, the associative. The word “association” lends itself to the very mundane business of meetings and conferences: the Shakespeare Association of America, the Modern Languages Association. We inhabit an Academy that seems quite comfortable with the idea of association. But does that comfort extend also to the idea of the associative? Or does the associative, rather, induce a guilt that can only be contracted by association? Another way of articulating this concern is as follows: what does it mean to think and write associatively, and how does one get away with it? 
      The trope for associative writing, the trope on which Claustrophilia stakes its claim is metonymy. The book is “grounded in a poetics – [and] also an ontology – of metonymy” (2). Claustrophilia suggests that “(…enclosed love, embedded touch) is…both an object of study and a critical practice” (4). The readings in the text are resolutely metonymic, which means they are not resolute at all – associative metonymy undermines the essentialising rigour of ontology to give us a chain without finitude, desire without end. But what does it mean to write without generating an end? And is this tantamount to writing endlessly? Early on, the book asserts that “[t]o touch is to experience a limit and open a connection” (7). But does opening connections conduce to finishing an argument? Can one make an argument without putting an end to connectivity, and therefore to metonymy? Can one participate in the associativeness of a clusterfuck while in search of the singularity of monogamy? This question of associative desire extends to all manner of bodies, from the papers we expect our students to write, to the books that get published more easily than others. Can we stand to read and write metonymy, or rather, what does metonymy look like when written?
      Perhaps the best example of theoretical metonymic texts are those of Jacques Derrida, which are notoriously difficult to read, even more difficult to understand, and famously frustrating for students. Often the readings on Derrida mark the turning-point in a class – either the student will grant the text its brilliance and stay with you for the rest of the semester, or she will turn off, convinced of her own stupidity. Metonymy has a way of sneaking in the suspicion of stupidity in its wake, and in turn, generating a lot of aggression and policing. Texts should not be written in this manner because texts should not be allowed to make one feel stupid. But even more than the fear of stupidity, there is a sense of general discomfort with a metonymic text. It does not quite have an origin, it does not quite gesture towards a terminus, and it does not stay put in one place or time. This, of course, is a definition par excellence, of Claustrophilia. It is comparative in that it looks at literatures written in different languages. It is spatially expansive since it deals with different national traditions. It is temporally promiscuous because it goes “beyond the tenuous distinction between medieval and modern” (2) culture. And it is sexually licentious because it flirts with an eroticism that remains undefined, indeed that is erotic because undefinable. The cluster of these metonymies fucks with our sense of propriety on temporal, spatial, and sexual fronts. 
      Importantly, this impropriety registers in the mode of the book’s writing: should this text have been written so voluptuously, so very metonymically? Since metonymy is promiscuously excessive, it makes for a difficult read. It also appears more intimate than it “needs” to because it is in thrall to multiple investments in several bodies. If “metonymy intervene[s], across space and time, to show the excess of each appearance” (120), then this excessive appearance embarrasses us, and we turn away our gaze. But to turn away from metonymy, to look askance at it, is itself to be metonymic. To beg it for the safe word we know we will never get, is to enter into a sado-masochistic relationship with it. Metonymy can be dangerous, all-encompassing, and very sexy. Take, for instance, the last lines of this book, lines that, when I first read them, I wrote out in an email and sent to everyone I know: “To hold is, thus, not just to behold; it is to be held, even to be held in suspense. To say this otherwise: you can only enter me to the extent that I entrance you” (152). The sexiness of these lines depends, obviously, on the idea of holding, beholding, entering, and entrancing. It also derives from the pun on entrance and entrance that marks both a liminal space – a limit – and an opening into desire. This is a fabulous example of metonymic writing, the twists and turns of which language is capable, and the desire generated by the friction of those twists. 
      But it also has one jarring word that turns its back on metonymy and tries to escape the guilt of association. That word is “thus.” A far cry from the associative activities of clusterfucking, the “thus” tries to anchor the sentence, the book and its argument. Despite announcing early on that its matter will bear an “unprovable burden of proof” (12), the book ends by yoking itself to the realm of rationality. How is Claustrophilia’s “superficial hermeneutic” (9) served or subverted by “thus”? This is the “thus,” we remember, that we like seeing in student essays – the announcement of a thesis that will bring together the many threads of an argument; the “thus” that provides the blurb for the back of our books, noting its “difference” from the others in the field. What does this “thus” do to metonymy? Is Claustrophilia renewing its commitment to the associative even in the moment of turning away from it, or is the turning away irrevocable, the last word in the book? 
      We could go either way, I suppose, or rather, we could go both ways and still be no closer to the truth. The “thus” that anchors the penultimate sentence finds its exact parallel in the “otherwise” of the final sentence; the truth that gestures towards the end also swerves away from that end, turning towards the pun that dazzles, the word that refuses the strictures of the “thus.” Thus unfettered, the book ends, providing us with “a queer ontology” (7) that has veered dangerously close to a clear ontology. The Master of Metonymy is restored at the end to its proper place, which is nowhere, and to its proper time, which is out of joint. But the associativeness of metonymy – its fuck-it attitude – always has to take recourse to the form of meaning in order to appear at all. For an association to exist, it must be aboveboard. And thus, while people have plenty of associative desires at association meetings, they cannot act on them at a panel session – instead, they have to be squeezed in at some other point, in some other place, albeit inevitably in the same hotel. 
      This vexed interplay of desire and the law appears everywhere language does, but I want to end by looking at one particular instance of it from Shakespeare’s play, Much Ado about Nothing. The wedding plans in the play have been ruined by a pair of villains who thwart the seemingly relentless march of heterosexuality by putting two bodies in the place of two others. This associative villainy is apprehended by foolish policemen who do not “understand” the magnitude of the plot they have uncovered. And so, when Dogberry, the constable, is asked by Don Pedro, the prince: “Officers, what offence have these men done,” he responds:
Marry, sir, they have committed false report, moreover they have spoken untruths, secondarily they are slanders, sixth and lastly they have belied a lady, thirdly they have verified unjust things, and to conclude, they are lying knaves. (5.1.201-5)
Emerging from the mouth of a character who insists earlier in the play, on being “writ down an ass,” Dogberry underlines the fundamentally metonymic cast of associating with desire. In response to a question from the law about the law, Dogberry suggests it is only by stepping sideways that we can apprehend the plot, and this apprehension both arrests desire and reveals its trembling. Associations are both clear and queer. Indeed, even the most repressive systems of tenure can only produce as their reward the title of, and injunction to, associate.

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