the naked gaze

politics, theory, and cultural critique

carlos rojas

Friday, April 21, 2006

Writing at Speed

“I am writing [this piece] at speed,” Spivak writes (at speed?) at the beginning of Ghostwriting, her 1996 rejoinder to Derrida’s long-awaited Specters of Marx (1995).

Writing at speed...In his subsequent “anachronis[tic]” (both “premature and belated”) response, Derrida would implicitly toss this phrase back at her, suggesting in “Marx & Sons” (1999) that his most celebrated translator had, perhaps, read him too speedily, not attentively enough, identifying a “misreadings,” including “errors [which] stem from an outright inability to read…” (223) (e.g., he notes that she quotes him critically [immediately after a somewhat bizarre interlude about watching a retrospective on Marx on the Today show while “doing my exercises”] for claiming that “We won’t repoliticize,” when Derrida, in the passage in question, actually wrote the exact opposite: “There will be no repoliticization, there will be no politics otherwise.”)
Riding at speed….is at the heart of another recent rejoinder, the 2001 film Beijing Bicycle, Wang Xiaoshuai’s 2001 remake of Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 classic, The Bicycle Thief. Wang’s film is about a young itinerant laborer from the countryside, Guo Liangui (Cui Lin) who comes to Beijing for work, and is subsequently hired by a courier service. As a condition for his employment, moreover, he must accept one of their band new mountain bikes, the payment for which would subsequently be garnered from each of his pay checks until the bike is completely paid off. In this way, Guo acquires speed and mobility, but at a price. Almost immediately after he finally succeeds in paying it off, the bicycle is stolen. Subsequently repurchased by a preppy secondary school student by the name of Jian, the bicycle comes to provide the hinge for a most improbable dialogue between radically dissimilar Beijing teenagers.
Writing at speed….Despite the professed speediness of her 1996 essay, Spivak’s dialogue with Derrida and Marx is actually one of consummate slowness, dating back nearly two decades. “Ghostwriting” builds on earlier essays, including her 1985 essay “Scattered Speculations on the Question of Value,” in which she notes that this was actually her “third attempt at working over these questions.” The first attempt was in “Marx after Derrida” (1984), followed by “Speculations on Reading Marx: after reading Derrida” (which was actually an “extended version of ‘the same [first] piece,’” and, in any event, was not published until 1987, two years after “Scattered Speculations”). Finally, there is yet another essay (or essays?) on the same topic which is not mentioned in “Speculations,” yet nevertheless chronologically straddles each of the preceding interventions: namely, her “Limits and Openings of Marx in Derrida,” first presented as a lecture in Paris in 1980 (and published in French the following year), but not published in English until 1993 (in a revised and expanded form in Outside in the Teaching Machine). Each text in this continuing dialogue, therefore, is part of an elaborate palimpsest, carrying echoes of preceding interventions, as well as anticipations/promises of what will follow (as Keith asks, "how can one concentrate on just one text, when so many other texts are woven into it”).
Beijing Bicycle is a similarly-tangled intertextual intervention. Not only is Wang’s film directly inspired by De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief, but furthermore it explicitly tropes on a number of more recent works. For instance, the first bicycle fight scene quotes quite directly from a parallel scene in Jiang Wen’s 1995 debut film In the Heat of the Sun—down to the protagonist’s extending beating of the crumpled body of a rival long after the fight has ended). Bicycle is also in dialogue with Wang Xiaoshuai’s own corpus of work, in that it is directly informed by the trouble his earlier films such as The Days and So Close to Paradise had with the censors. Equally importantly, Bicycle is implicitly in dialogue with Wang’s Frozen (2000), a provocative film about Beijing performance artists which Wang directed released anonymously so as not to cause unnecessary controversy for Beijing Bicycle, which he hoped would have a much smoother ride through the approval process. Finally, Beijing Bicycle is also directly in dialogue with one of the classic novels of the early twentieth century China: Lao She’s Camel Xiangzi, about a poor Beijing rickshaw puller’s symbiotic relationship with the rickshaw which is both his livelihood as well as a direct concretization of his own labor.
Writing at speed… Part of the significance of speed and timeliness for this two-decade long (anti)dialogue is that the dialogue itself is explicitly grounded on notions of promises, contracts, debts, etc. In “Ghostwriting,” for instance, Spivak frames “Speculations” as a “textualized answer” to the “question of value” (but the footnote to this passage makes clear that it is just as importantly an “answer” to the question of Derrida’s perspective on Marx); and she compares the ghost of Marx that Derrida is haunted by” to “the structure of a promise…” (s0metim3s concludes with a consideration of this passage, though in a somewhat different context. These thematics of promise, contract, and debt are, of course, central concerns in Derrida’s Specters of Marx itself.
Motivated by the promise of his former boss at the courier service that he would be rehired if he succeeded in tracking down the stolen bike, Guo vows to scour the city until he finds it again (he had made a proprietary mark on the bicycle just before it was stolen). Improbably, he ultimately does succeed in finding it, now owned by the prep school student Jian (who stole money from his father to purchase it after his father reneged on his earlier promise to buy him one). Caught, therefore, between two promises (viz., Guo’s boss’, and Jian’s father’s), one of them broken), the bicycle functions to suture together different temporalities, spaces, and unexpected social relationships.
Writing at speed… In “Ghostwriting,” Spivak notes that her first essay on Derrida for Diacritics (18 years earlier) took her a year to write, but that now she is “writing at speed,” in part because “life has become harder in the intervening years.” (Amerdeep Singh discusses the interpenetration of Spivak’s tempo of life and her writing). In the second paragraph of “Ghostwriting,” meanwhile, Spivak specifies that she intends not only to write this essay “at speed,” but furthermore to “write at ease.” “Speed” and “ease” might initially appear to be opposed to one another—with speed connoting a post-Fordist emphasis on efficiency and production (time is money), and ease connoting a space a space of leisure, or relaxation, of deliberate slowness. In “Ghost-writing,” however, Spivak is using “speed” and “ease” as parallel terms, suggesting that “at ease,” here, suggests a release not so much from compulsory speed per se, bur rather from an economy grounded on the compulsory regulation of speed.
At one point in Beijing Bicycle, Guo shows up a bathhouse to pick up a package from a certain “Mr. Wang.” The receptionist, however, insists that, in order to enter the bathhouse, Gui must first undress and shower. He reluctantly does so, looking decidedly grumpy, whereupon he is dressed in a frumpy robe and lead into the massage area to look for Mr. Wang. When he subsequently attempts to leave, however, the receptionist continues to insist that he pay for the shower, despite the fact that, as he points out, it had been she herself who had insisted he take the shower in the first place. Here, therefore, we have the pampering of the bathhouse functioning as a luxury for some, but as a luxury for some, but as considerable hardship for someone like Guo, who is clearly longing to escape this oppressive (and exploitative) “leisure,” and speed away on his bicycle as soon as possible.
Writing at speed… in “Ghostwriting,” Spivak implies that it is her unusually intimate and convoluted relationship with both thinkers that makes it possible—and perhaps even necessary?—for her to write so speedily. On the one hand, at the beginning of “Ghostwriting,” she notes that a friend has suggested that perhaps she feels “proprietorial about Marx,” a suggestion which she herself does not deny. On the other hand, she notes in “Limits and Openings of Marx in Derrida” that she has “fallen into a habit of deconstruction over the past twenty five years”; and three years later, in “Ghostwriting,” she elaborates that, “My relationship to ‘deconstruction’, whatever that may be, has become more intimate, more everyday, more of a giving—away, and in—habit of mind, a kind of tic that comes in to warn in the thick of what is called activism.” Caught between feeling “proprietorial”—or shall we say possessive?—about one of the most influential theorists of property and possessions; and gripped—shall we say “possessed”?— by the “habit” or “tic” of deconstruction, Spivak, in pursuing this dialogue between Marxism and deconstruction (between possessiveness and possession), is, in a very real sense, developing a dialogue with herself.
Caught at an impasse over two competing and (within the logic of the film) equally valid claims of ownership, Gui and Jian reluctantly agree to a rather astonishing compromise: they will Solomonically split their respective rights to the vehicle, with each of them using it on alternate days. In this way, the mountain bike oscillates between two markedly different valuations. For Gui, the teenager the countryside seeking work in Beijing, the bicycle is a means of subsistence, the hard-earned product of his labor (50% is deducted from every 10 Yuan delivery until the debt is repaid in full). For Jian, the prep school student whose middle-class family is, perhaps, slightly less wealthy than those of his friends and classmates, the bike is all about social status, and sex appeal. Both teenagers, therefore, perceive the bicycle as representing an extension of their identities—in the sense that others not only view them through the lens of this possession, while they themselves have internalized (become possessed by) the unique rhythms and habits of the possession.
Writing at speed… This speed is, at some level, an affirmation of the degree to which the act of writing is itself embedded within an economy of production and consumption. Writing, one may assume, with the help of modern technologies such as the word processor, a device which, as Spivak notes in “Speculations,” “is an extremely convenient and efficient tool for the production of writing. It certainly allows us to produce a much larger quantity of writing in a much shorter time…” Yet Spivak is nevertheless sanguine about the possible promise of this computational speed and efficiency, arguing (somewhat mysteriously) that “we are, however, present at the inception of telecommunication and, being completely encompassed by the historical ideology of efficiency, we are unable to reckon with the transformations wrought by the strategic exclusions of the randomness of bricolage operated by programming”; and, later, “the computer, even as it pushes the frontiers of rationalization, proves unable to achieve bricolage, to produce a program that will use an item for a purpose for which it was not designed” (128).
Leaving aside the odd assertion that bricolage is no longer possible in the age of global telecommunciations, suffice it to note that this essay’s juxtaposition of Spivak’s and Wang Xiaoshuai’s texts is itself, needless to say, a deliberate act of bricolage—the bringing together of otherwise unrelated elements in the hope of creating a new whole—to reflect further on the status of value and the subject. Building on a pair of (impossible) dialogues—Spivak and Derrida in dialogue over Marx; Spivak mediating between a dialogue between Derrida and Marx, etc.—we introduce here a third, equally unlikely dialogue—Spivak and Wang Xiaoshuai.

The contemporary Beijing of Beijing Bicycle is similarly centrally concerned with the status of textual production within an economy transitioning from one based on traditional human labor (e.g., the bicycle couriers) and one based on the near-instantaneity of global telecommunications (e.g., the invisible content of the business packages Guo delivers back and forth all day pertain in no small part, it is safe to assume, to the businesses which are currently at the forefront of Beijing’s and China’s “modernization."
Writing at speed… Does the temporality of the modern telecommunications necessarily obviate the possibility of bricolage? Underlying this rather mysterious question is Spivak’s underlying concern in the essay, which is the relevance of Marxist theories of Value, and of the subject, within a contemporary era of telecommunications. In the process of addressing this question, she critically examines the “continuist” presumption underlying the signifying chain labor→money→value→capital:
Let us now consider the discontinuities harbored by the unified terms that name the relationships between the individual semantemes on that chain. Such resident discontinuities also textualize the chain.
[“Textualize,” here, appears to be used as a figure for Derridean différerance, but at the same time it inevitably carries connotations of its more “literal” meaning, i.e., of writing.] The nub of this critique is her deconstruction of the relationship between “use value” and “exchange value,” and more specifically her claim that it is precisely the apparently “parasitic” exchange value which provides the conditions under which use-value becomes possible in the first place: “Exchange-value, which is some respects is the species term of Value, is also a superfluity or a parasite of use-value…. “ Or, as she puts it more concisely in “Limits,” “How many of Marx’s readers remember that use-value appears only after the appearance of the exchange relation?” (106).
The question which Beijing Bicycle brings into focus, however, is the role of fetishism and fetishistic attachment within the exchange relation. Guo relies on his bicycle for his economic livelihood, while Jian’s equally strong attachment to the vehicle (informed by his association of the bicycle with his girlfriend’s desire, by his Oedipal relationship with his father, and by his complex relationship with his friends) underscores the intricate interpenetration of these monetary and psychic economies. Even in the case of Guo, his attachment to the bicycle, his willingness to endure considerable physical punishment in order to regain it, would appear to vastly exceed its objective monetary value for him (it is true that it was his means of employment, but surely the courier service was not the only company in Beijing at which he could be hired).

One might be tempted to view these latter sorts of fetishistic or addictive attachments to commodities as parasitic to the underlying monetary economy within which they are embedded, and perhaps they are, indeed, parasitic in a Derridean sense—providing the conditions under which monetary value becomes possible in the first place.

[Cross-posted at Long Sunday]

10 Comments:

Anonymous Matt said...

Hi, nice to meet you.

I'm a litle confused about that final blockquote...is it not you speaking?

Cheers.

8:21 PM  
Blogger crojas said...

Thanks Matt.
Throughout, for convenience, I was using the blockquote function to signal my second narrative line (on Beijing Bicycle). In the final two paragraphs, meanwhile, I tried to conclude by bringing the two narrative lines more explicitly into dialogue with each other, and it just worked out that that took place in the "embedded" line. So, yes, it's me speaking, but it's me speaking in a "Beijing Bicycle-meets-Spivak"voice.

6:37 AM  
Anonymous Matt said...

thanks for clarifying, crojas.

2:47 PM  
Blogger Le Colonel Chabert said...

love the vivid image of spivak riding her two wheeled vehicle (marx/derrida) swiftly (down from the moutaintop?)... and this fugue of the two 'use' values (material, mystical), also producing two exchange values; she possesses marxism and is possessed by deconstruction; she commodifies and is commodified herself.

I don't remember which of the Value essays I read, but in _Critique of Post-Colonial Reason_, Spivak's readings of literature have both a shopping (use 1) - just the right Kipling bag to go with the Baudelaire pumps! - and a faintly mystical legalistic title-dispute (use 2) aspect, determining the rightful reading, the reading that properly possesses and is possessed by the literary work: the reading that restores what/who was expropriated. This seems to be at once the violation of certain values (those created by a siniser market) and the reparation of the error of 'ignoring', thus very much an act of fidelity, in the sense also of 'doing justice' to the implied claimaints, Human Affairs. On the other hand there is the constant confession of fetishism, the struggle with it, in which Spivak pits one value - fairness, which is close to truth - against all others (as in a court of equity) and identifies it as a trump. Fidelity is absolutely requisite; the product of unfaithful deconstruction is ideological violence: "these readings, as they deconstruct an error, themselves perform a lie". (CPR, p. 156)

5:00 AM  
Blogger Le Colonel Chabert said...

(two instances of exchange value, should have said.)

5:01 AM  
Blogger crojas said...

LCC,
Thanks for your very nice comments.
The tension which you point to between the relation between these two different senses of "possession" as they relate Spivak's project (I particularly like your formulation of her "fetish[....] of fairness, which is close to truth," as well your observation of Spivak's assertion that fidelity is a necessary requisite to a deconstructive project [I made a similar observation yesterday in the other discussion thread to this post]) is well taken. I would suggest, furthermore, that this tension perhaps is most visible when her two identities as translator and critic (of Mahasweta Devi, of Derrida himself) intersect. (traduttore, traditore!)

11:10 AM  
Blogger roger said...

A totally useful post, Mr. N.G.
Thanks.

1:34 PM  
Blogger crojas said...

Thanks Roger, once again.
And also, thanks for the nod at the beginning of your fascinating multipart post on lighting and enlightenment. Ties back in nicely with Derrida's "Specters of Marx" theme in the sense that it was precisely the development of artificial light during the nineteenth century which revolutionized the possibilities for the creation of ghostly apparitions (through projections, etc.), thereby informing, perhaps, Marx's fascination with spectrality.

10:23 AM  
Anonymous Amie said...

NG, thanks for this post. i've spent quite a bit of time being a bike messenger, reading derrida, so your post certainly sent some wheels spinning...

4:10 PM  
Blogger crojas said...

Thanks Amei.
Delivering letters while reading La Carte Postale...sounds exciting, though probably not terribly reassuring to your employer (what with D's fascination with misdirected letters).

5:00 PM  

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