Coetzee's Diary of a Bad Year, politics, and the problem of position.
Why is it so hard to say anything about politics from outside politics? Why can there be no discourse about politics that is not itself political? --J. M. Coetzee (Diary 9)
What are we to make of J. M. Coetzee's Diary of a Bad Year? One of the first things to note is that it is an unconventionally structured text, to say the least. Consisting as it does of different sections that are generically quite diverse, it is of a piece with Coetzee's other recent "novels"--if we can call them that--in being marked by what Michael Marais has called their "perfunctory treatment of narrative" (193). (1) Though the "novel" is divided into two parts, "Strong Opinions" and "Second Diary," the connection between them is not immediately apparent. Not only is the second diary undated, but a first one appears to be missing, while "Strong Opinions"--which does not really look much more like a diary than the undated "Second Diary" does--is dated ("12 September 2005-31 May 2006"). Even more immediately striking is the architecture of the pages and the challenges this poses for the reader. Most pages consist of initially two, later three, parallel sections: essays in political philosophy, letters, a fictional narrative. Thus "Strong Opinions" starts with a philosophical essay on the origins of the state (3) while the second section of the opening page, which appears below a line subdividing it, is written in a different mode entirely, seeing that it concerns the as-yet unnamed narrator's encounter with a "quite startling young woman" wearing a "tomato-red shift" that is "startling in its brevity." As the juxtaposition of these sections suggests, the division of the text on individual pages appears to be between essays of political philosophy and commentary on political events on the one hand and, on the other, self-reflexive literary narrative below the line--an opposition that, as is already apparent on the opening page, also juxtaposes mind and body, argument and desire.
Given these generically diverse sections and their combination on particular pages, how is one to read the text? What is the text suggesting about the relation between politics and literature, or political philosophy and literary writing? And how might we understand the conjunction here of the serious and the playful, perhaps even the sublime and the profane? These questions are lent particular urgency by the fact that Coetzee--or rather, "JC," as the putative author of the opinions collected in the texts signs himself in a letter to Anya (Diary 123), the owner of the red smock whom he subsequently engages as a typist--explicitly presents the text, or at least the parts of it made up of primarily political, essayistic opinions, as "a response to the present in which I find myself" (67). (2) How does the peculiar form of the text, and the problems of reading that it poses, relate to its status as a response to the present, to such issues as the "permanent state of exception" (as Agamben might say) and the war on terror (e.g. Diary 21, 37); the abrogation of the rule of law (e.g. 17-18, 39) and the torture of enemy combatants (e.g. 171-72); the systematic maltreatment and slaughter of non-human animals (e.g. 63- 65); the "shameful" fate of corporatized universities (35), and the brutality of an economic order founded on the assumed necessity of competition as the "sublimation of warfare" (80)? What is the relation between the forceful, direct, "strong opinions" articulated in response to the present on the one hand, and the underlying narrative on the other?
As I shall show, one way of approaching Diary of a Bad Year is to recognize that it addresses, and attempts to negotiate, a longstanding worry of Coetzee's concerning the relation between politics and literature: if the text, or at least its political-philosophical sections, is in part an attempt to respond to the present, then the political character of this engagement renders it vulnerable to the predations of those in power, namely politicians. One way in which to understand the form of the text is then that it constitutes an attempt to move towards a position beyond politics, to an impossible, ironic position that allows the text to make a political intervention without, however, getting caught up in the game of politics.
One section of the text that quite explicitly concerns the problem of position with reference to the logic of politics, and in particular democratic politics, is the analysis by JC of Harold Pinter's politically activist Nobel Prize acceptance speech. Though JC doubts the efficacy and ultimately the wisdom of Pinter's response to the present as articulated in this speech, he has understanding, even admiration for Pinter's action since "there come times when the outrage and the shame are so great that all calculation, all prudence, is overwhelmed and one must act, that is to say, speak" (127). In the case of Diary of a Bad Year, the speech act involved takes the form of a miscellany of apparently, at least at first, unrelated parts, and it becomes "genuinely undecidable," as Paul Patton ("Coetzee's Opinions" 3) puts it, what the genre of the text is: whether it is a novel or a book of opinions. Previously, for instance in the collection of essays Giving Offense with its strong and sometimes contentious views on topics relating to censorship and pornography, Coetzee has of course presented sets of his own forcefully argued opinions. But especially more recently, his work has fictionally staged and tested such opinions, for instance in the quasi-novelistic text Elizabeth Costello that articulates opinions on such topics as animal rights and the nature of evil. In Diary of a Bad Year, Coetzee appears to be combining both strategies of responding to contentious, pressing issues. Many of the essays in this text read as if they could have appeared in a collection of essays such as Giving Offense, while the section/s below the line are more overtly fictional.
The section on Pinter is particularly suggestive as to Coetzee's reservations concerning the logic of politics: "when one speaks in one's own person--that is, not through one's art--to denounce some politician or other, using the rhetoric of the agora, one embarks on a contest which one is likely to lose because it takes place on ground where one's opponent is far more practiced and adept" (Diary 127). What JC is suggesting is that for an artist to engage politically in a democratic state is to risk either being dismissed or accommodated in the political system s/he seeks to oppose: as he writes, "cynicism and contempt are quite comfortably accommodated within the system" of democracy. Thus, since "democracy does not allow for politics outside the democratic system"--since it forces the subjects of democracy to choose between "A" and "B" (8-9) within that system--"democracy is totalitarian" (15).What this means is that the artist risks getting caught in a relation of "power-rivalry" with the state from which there may be no escape ("Emerging from Censorship" 46).
For this reason Coetzee's work has long evinced a thoroughgoing suspicion of politics. Back in his days in South Africa, in the 1980s and 1990s in particular, Coetzee was a controversial figure precisely because of the lack of--explicitly political--controversy of his work. Consequently, as Catherine Mills puts it in an essay on Lift and Times of Michael K, he was often attacked "for his failure to elaborate a political vision of transformation beyond the social and political conditions that he describes in his novels" (177). In the short address "The Novel Today," delivered in 1987 in the context of the struggle against apartheid and the injunction that writers use their work instrumentally to further that struggle, Coetzee responded by expressing the at the time particularly controversial belief that the novel is a "rival" to history rather than a mere "supplement" to it: for him, therefore, it is not a "handmaiden" (5) in support of the power politics that shapes history. Rather, art opposes politics; its truth is a different kind of truth, and indeed art works to subvert the "truth" of politics. In other words, Coetzee was here electing a position outside politics, a position that seeks to oppose politics by repudiating the instrumental use of art.
In a later essay, "Erasmus: Madness and Rivalry" (1992), Coetzee complicates this position: he realizes that installing the novel as a rival of politics would amount to reproducing politics if the latter is implicitly rivalrous, as he thinks it is. In the essay, Coetzee considers--with reference to Foucault's work on madness in relation to reason, Derrida's reading of Foucault, Lacan's thinking of this relation, and Girard's analysis of mimetic violence--Erasmus's attempt to attain a practical position beyond the two rival camps of the Pope and Luther. Referring to Foucault's Madness and Civilization, he offers a suggestive comment on the nature of politics and its link with rivalry: Foucault's project is to "reveal the opposition of reason to madness as a merely political opposition, that is, an opposition of rivals on the same plane, one of whom has stifled and silenced the other" (85).What interests me here is less the paradoxical character of Foucault's project--to make madness speak he needs the language of reason--than the notion that politics consists of rivalry. If this is the case, then a position outside of politics would appear to be untenable, if not impossible, since such a position would then oppose politics and would therefore stand in a position of rivalry in relation to it, thereby merely replicating the politics from which it seeks to escape.
Coetzee is far from alone in understanding politics as rivalry. The fascist German legal theorist Carl Schmitt notoriously defines politics as involving the act of deciding between friend and enemy so that, in the terms of this definition, politics essentially consists of rivalry For Schmitt, the decision between friend and enemy becomes especially urgent in the event of the exception that results from an emergency. (3) As he puts it in the opening sentence of his Political Theology, "sovereign is he who decides on the exception [Ausnahme]" (5). The political just is, for Schmitt, the domain in which a logic of competition and indeed enmity is the order of the day (The Concept of the Political 26, 43-44, 49). Coetzee shares this understanding. However, far from basing a political project on this notion, which, if Schmitt's example suggests anything, would lead to fascism itself, Coetzee seeks alternatives to politics because of its rivalrous character: an ethical alternative via the aesthetic.
What is especially notable is that Coetzee hints at a way out of the double bind, and that this involves an Erasmian irony that resists "the notion of the key that will unlock" it, the "ambition to freeze it in a single, locked position" (249, fn. 17). It is my contention that, like Erasmus, Coetzee desires such an ironic "nonposition" (84): the position of folly, of the marginalized, the powerless, the fool free to criticize all without being co-opted by either side in a particular conflict, "off the stage of rivalry altogether." He is thus writing in praise of the fool or, to relate this more directly to Erasmus, in praise of folly: the latter's ironic disavowal of authority that allows him to position himself off the political stage of rivalry. (4)
Coetzee is fully cognizant of the paradoxes of a position such as Erasmus's: that there is something inherently self-defeating about the attempt "to create ... a position from which to speak without being drawn into a dynamic of rivalry" (98). Not the least of the problems is that "the very mark of the success of the paradoxical project of embracing the position of the fool, the eunuch, the woman, is that as, to the surprise of all, the power of that position reveals itself, the paradox dissolves and the rivalrousness of the project is revealed" (100).That is, the more successful Erasmus's position becomes (and one might add Coetzee's, too), and thus the more authority it attains, the weaker it becomes, since the stronger it becomes the more it comes to seem like a position opposite the positions taken up by those rivals engaged in political power play, and thus as a rival position itself instead of the nonposition it seeks to be. For this reason, a "jocoseriousness"--which I read as another name for the irony that resists being unlocked and resolved in a "single, locked position"--is required in order, ironically, to undercut the project in which Erasmus is engaged. For Erasmus to succeed in not being co-opted into a particular political position, he has to subvert the very positionality of his own position so as to avoid being incorporated into a particular political discourse; it is this "extraordinary resistance in the Erasmian text to being read and made part of another discourse" that Coetzee is trying to bring forward in his own reading of that text so that, as he puts it at the end of the essay:
The discourse of Erasmus's Protean Folly ... is only by the most strenuous effort wresded on to the field of politics: Erasmus virtually disarms anyone ... who passionately decides to take up the Erasmian cause by elevating him in advance to the status of one who knows. Instead, the power of the text lies in its weakness--its jocoserious abnegation of big-phallus status, its evasive (non-) position inside/outside the play--just as its weakness lies in its power to grow, to propagate itself, to beget Erasmians. (103)
Diary of a Bad Year similarly disarms readers who would take up some "Coetzean" cause, while its power ironically lies in its weakness, in its inability to participate on the political stage as a political text. It is a text that, in undercutting the positions it takes, attempts to carve out a position off the stage of political rivalry while yet positioning itself with respect to the outrages with which it is concerned. The reader therefore cannot but fail in becoming a Coetzean, in the same way that readers of Erasmus cannot in any simple way become Erasmians, for to do so would be to attribute power to Erasmus or Coetzee and thus weaken his (non)position.
This helps explain the somewhat puzzling relation between JC and J. M. Coetzee. Not only does the text never explicitly identify JC with Coetzee, but, despite the numerous coincidences, even the apparently straightforward identification of JC as the author of Waiting for the Barbarians (171) that would appear to render it indisputable, there are discrepancies--no matter how minor--which make the connection questionable. Thus while, for instance, both JC and J. M. Coetzee are the author of a book on censorship that appeared in the mid-1990s (22), and while both are expatriate, white, male South Africans now residing in Australia, there are differences in their age and place of residence: JC is said to have been born in South Africa in 1934 (50), while Coetzee was born in 1940; Coetzee resides in Adelaide while JC lives in Sydney; and so on. In other words, JC is a figure like Elizabeth Costello that one is tempted, but ultimately unable, to identify with Coetzee.
Given the play of these complicated identifications and cisidentifications, the text presents, to paraphrase a comment by Coetzee in the early essay "The Manuscript Revisions of Beckett's Watt," a peculiar, forthright kind of irony in that it says exactly what it means (42) concerning such topics as Guatinarno Bay, torture, the rule of law and animal rights without, however, allowing the reader finally to attribute the positions to their author: J. M. Coetzee. The comment by Coetzee on Beckett is, of course, ironic given that irony is ordinarily understood as saying something other than what it means. This irony is of a piece with the disregard for narrative convention that Coetzee detects in Beckett's fiction ("Manuscript" 42) and is in evidence precisely in Diary of a Bad Year's almost baroque architecture which works very strongly both to identify the "strong opinions" of the author JC and his later diary entries as Coetzee's while, at the same time, rendering such identification problematic. Thus, while the text encourages the reader to identify the author of the strong opinions and diary entries--JC--with the author of the text Diary of a Bad Year itself--J. M. Coetzee--the abiding effect is of distance between author and reader, since any association one makes between these authors is simultaneously and constantly disrupted.
Since the relation between "JC" and Coetzee is ultimately undecidable, JC is a distancing device, a persona--or, to use the rhetorical term, a prosopopoeia--of Coetzee rather than "Coetzee" himself, thus positing an identification between JC's positions and Coetzee's while simultaneously subverting it. So, regardless of whose opinions are being articulated in Diary of a Bad Yew; the narrative sections below, informed as they are by JC's desire for Anya, unquestionably serve to relativize--and render faintly ridiculous--the high seriousness of these opinions. This proso-popeic process of positing a face that is then revealed as a mask through discrepancies which disrupt the identification of JC and his positions with Coetzee, constitutes what may be termed, following the German Romantic Friedrich Schlegel's definition of irony, a permanent parabasis. (5) The text's identification of them and its simultaneous disruption of that identification result in a dialectic oscillation similar to that described by Schlegel's definition: since in Greek drama a parabasis is an aside during which the chorus steps out of the play, it is an interruption of the fictional contract that shatters the illusion of fiction. But while an interruption is per definition temporary, a permanent parabasis that persists alongside the fiction it interrupts would result in precisely the kind of infinite oscillation that Diary of a Bad Year's identification of JC and Coetzee occasions. It is one of the key ironic techniques--ironic since it allows the text to say what it means without doing so--through which the text deals with the problem of political position. Indeed, given that this parabasic text inverts the structure of parabasis--in that it is not fiction that is interrupted here, but (political) commentary, that is, those elements that in Greek theater would have been the asides that interrupt the play--this text is doubly ironic. Its interruption of asides by means of fiction thereby performs the disruption of the coherence not of narrative fiction, but of its engagement with the political.
Aside from this simultaneous positing and interruption of idenrification between JC and Coetzee, this irony is on the most basic level evident in the polyvocal or polyphonic character of Diary of a Bad Year, with the different voices--those of Anya, her boyfriend Alan, and JC--ironically echoing and thereby, to different degrees, affecting one another. But how might such "affecting" work, and what kind of politics would a politics be that is based on an ironic Erasmian nonposition--a politics against politics, as it were? Derrida's notions of the "democracy to come" and "autoimmunity" will be helpful for coming to a better understanding of the kind of politics against politics implicit in Coetzee's ironic Erasmian nonposition, and the ways Anya and JC thereby affect each other, as well as Diary of a Bad Year's antipathy to a reductive understanding of democracy as a simple choice between "A" and "B."
In an essay to which I have already alluded, Catherine Mills complicates criticisms of Coetzee's alleged unwillingness to engage politically and offering a vision for political transformation through his fiction. She does so by reading Life and Times of Michael K through the lens of Agamben's work on the legal exception and abandonment before the law, arguing that this text's apparent closure of history is in fact the precondition for its orientation towards political futurity. Mills argues that, far from constituting "a conservative survivalism" (191), Michael K's turn away from history in escaping from the camps in which he has been held on the accusation of being a collaborator and his retreat to the heterotopic space of the farm, only apparently performs a "closure of or turning away from the future" (192), as his critics aver (she discusses Nadine Gordimer and Sahnan Rushdie). This is so for the reason that the novel is itself "an opening onto an indeterminate future" since, as she explains with reference to a reading of Derricia's understanding of the relation between conditional and unconditioned hospitality, the text performs an interruption of Michael K's dream of a conditioned futurity in the form of a potential life of cultivation on the farm on which he so wishes to settle. This interruption becomes apparent in, for instance, a parenthetical, self-reflexive interjection on the penultimate page of the novel, in which someone--it is undecidable whether this is Michael K, Coetzee, or some other entity--muses as to the moral of the story: "is that how morals come, unbidden, in the course of events, when you least expect them?" (Life and Times 183). According to Mills, this question--and thereby the novel as such--gestures to the radical indeterminacy of the future, of the "always to-come" in the Derridean sense, unbidden, unforeseen and undetermined" (193).
For Derrida, there is a need to distinguish between actual "democracies" and an impossible ideal form of it that yet paradoxically defines it; he goes so far as to say that democracy does not, and cannot, exist: "democracy to come' does not mean a future democracy that will one day be 'present.' Democracy will never exist in the present. ... But there is the impossible, whose promise democracy inscribes" ("Autoimmunity" 120; see Politics of Friendship 306). Democracy is essentially fragmentary as it is defined by its status as project: it cannot fully exist in either the present or the future for the reason that it is a project that can in principle never finally arrive, and thus never be complete: the political process of actively interrogating, negotiating, and reflecting that is constitutive of democracy would end if it were, or were thought, to have arrived. It is this aporia that defines democracy:
the expression "democracy to come" takes into account the absolute and intrinsic historicity of the only system that welcomes in itself, in its very concept, that expression of autoimmunity called the right to self-critique and perfectibility. Democracy is the only system, the only constitutional paradigm, in which, in principle, one has or assumes the right to criticize everything publicly, including the idea of democracy, its concept, its history, and its name. (Rogues 87)
As the term "autoimmunity" suggests, democracy carries within itself "that strange behavior where [it] in quasi-suicidal fashion 'itself' works to destroy its own protection, to immunize itself against its 'own' immunity" ("Autoimmunity" 94). That is, it is of the essence of democracy that it can have no final, clearly defined essence other than that it is open to the other, which of course in itself will destabilize it if it is actually to be open to the other. Since what makes it democratic is "the right to self-critique," or "the right to criticize everything publicly, including the idea of democracy" itself, democracy is therefore also its own other and is thus a necessarily impossible project defined by its constant interruption by itself of itself. (6)
Coetzee's un/political, Erasmian response to politics in. Diary of a Bad Year, in interrupting itself constantly, in its fragmentariness, follows this logic of the democracy to come: it is a critique of democracy that seeks to defend democracy. That the text is an attempt to defend democracy is suggested on the most basic level by the prominence in Diary of a Bad Year of a defense of, for instance, the rule of law in the face of "necessity" as justification of torture and the war on terror (17, 19, 39, 124, 171-72). The pertinent point here is that Coetzee's is a political, but also more than a political response: ironically, the means whereby democracy is defended is precisely through an attack on (the calcified institutions of) democracy, such as the reduction of democracy to a case of merely choosing between two alternatives, "A" and "B," and moreover in some countries, including Australia, being forced to do so (8-9). This interruption of democratic politics by itself is effected in Diary of a Bad Year in the performance of its form, its aesthetic character. Coetzee's text through its sheer form compels the reader to interrupt her or his reading of the text as s/he reads it.
This process of interruption, and the process of reading associated with it, is evident in the numerous instances, from early on in the text, when JC's narrative concerning Anya echoes and thereby ironizes the high seriousness of his own opinions. Anya often mistranscribes words and phrases: "papists and popery" (13) turns into "papers and papery" (25); "Urals" (19) into "urinals" (25); "acquiring an identity" (4) into "acquiring an italic identity" (32); and "Mittwoch Verlag" (23) into "Mr Wittwoch" (226). These are not merely elements in an "error-strewn way" (32), as JC would have it, but become instances of malapropistic citations, of irony as echoic mention, as the pragmatist linguists Deirdre Wilson and Dan Sperber might say (263-74). The more overtly literary sections of the novel at the bottom of the pages fulfill this function too: the political interventions above are, as they are read, continuously interrupted, qualified, yet not thereby canceled out: if the Urals turn into urinals, each yet remains itself. These echoes in their crudeness are more than merely cheap jokes and easy laughs, but fulfill a central role in the ironic structure of the novel, in setting the scene aesthetically for an ethical engagement between others that is not based primarily on rivalry's ultimate logic of war: the decision between friend and enemy.
While the tripartite relationship between Anya, Alan, and JC could be demonstrated to be a classic example of Rene Girard's model of rivals, which as noted above Coetzee discusses in the essay on Erasmus (90-93), in the end politics cannot define Anya and JC's ultimately indefinable relationship: they are neither lovers nor friends in any pure and simple way. Instead, in typing, and indeed mistyping, Anya affects JC: through his relationship with her, which is based on her skeptical mis/readings of his opinions, he realizes that he needs to revise his opinion of his opinions (136). As the text explicitly suggests, this is the genesis of his "second, gentler set of opinions" (145; italics in text). This second set of opinions acts as a counterpoint to the aggressive, harsh, explicitly political first set; it extends and adds another dimension to "JC," the holder of the strong opinions.
As my discussion of Diary of a Bad Year has demonstrated, this text constitutes an attempt to find a position alternative to the political in order to respond to an intolerable present. It does so because of Coetzee's antipathy to politics, an antipathy premised upon the diagnosis that politics is implicitly rivalrous and that the artist faces the very real danger of being neutralized should s/he attempt to intervene on the political stage. Coetzee therefore attempts to find an. ironic nonposition off the stage of politics that would allow him to intervene on political questions of the day, but without doing so politically. Rather, serious political topics become subject to a constantly disruptive ironization in order to save democratic politics from itself. Diary of a Bad Year in its impossibly Erasmian way--since there can be no real Erasmians--then constitutes a paradoxical, ironical attempt to "learn to speak without authority" (151), as JC, paraphrasing Kierkegaard, puts it. Given that "what is wrong with politics is power itself" (203), it seeks to respond to politics without power.
What all this finally suggests is that there is something fundamentally parodic about Diary of a Bad Year. Though I can do no more than briefly gesture towards this topic here, it nonetheless seems important to recognize that the dialogic, polyphonic interplay of different voices--the conversations between the characters Anya, Alan, and JC, and by implication between these characters, the author, and the reader--and the crude echoes of Anya's mistranscriptions are reminiscent of the terms of Bakhtin's influential approach to the novel. In the seminal essay "Epic and Novel," for instance, he understands it as constituting a "zone of crude contact" with the everyday (26). Bakhtin, moreover, sees the novel as fundamentally parodic in that, as a genre, it continuously renews itself by novelizing" other genres. This "novelizing" consists of a transformation of those other genres--Bakhtin's example is the epic-- by ironically incorporating their conventions into itself while, at the same time, deflating them by bringing them into contact with the everyday Novelized genres thus become:
more free and flexible, their language renews itself by incorporating extra-literary heteroglossia and the "novelistic" layers of literary language, they become dialogized, permeated with laughter, irony, humor, elements of self-parody and finally--this is the most important thing--the novel inserts into these other genres an indeterminacy, a certain semantic openendedness, a living contact with unfinished, still-evolving contemporary reality (the openended present). (7)
Might one argue that Diary of a Bad Year in its incorporation of the extra-literary--in the form of political-philosophical essays, a miscellany of Opinions--as well as quite literally the various "novelistic' layers" of which it is made up, is in fact engaged in doing just what Bakhtin thinks defines what novels do: the constant renewal of other genres? Is this text therefore engaged in renewing the genres of politics and philosophy, and indeed of the novel itself, through its form, permeated as it is with "laughter, irony, humor, elements of self-parody"? And, what is for Bakhtin "the most important thing," might it be the case that this text (which we can now, in view of his understanding of the novel, without reserve term a novel) inserts into other genres--those of politics and philosophy--"an indeterminacy, a certain semantic openendedness, a living contact with unfinished, still-evolving contemporary reality (the openended present)"? If so, then from this perspective the novel, in its insistence on the 66 openendedness" of a constantly evolving present appears as a concomitant of a Derridean democracy to come.
We should note, however, that Diary of a Bad Year is not only parodic in nature but also parabasic, to return to the term to which I briefly alluded above in my discussion of the oscillation between JC and Coetzee. Agamben concludes a recently published essay on parody by making the familiar point that parabasis is the interruption or suspension ("Aufhe-bung") of the gap between world and word, the stage of politics and the stage of the play. He identifies parody with this gap: it is the space or position beside the song ("Parody" 40) which does not "coincide with fiction, but constitutes its polar opposite" (48). One might say, in Coetzee's terms, that this position beside the song is occupied by JC's primarily political opinions that, therefore, are quite literally parodies of political opinions. By the same token, the song could then be said to consist of the narratives, below the line, of JC's engagement with Anya as well as of the softer opinions with which the text concludes and which interrupt JC's strong opinions by having been affected by Anya. But we should note that, with the parabasic character of this text, it is not so much the song that is being parodied by that which is beside it--"beside the song" being, as Agamben notes (40), what the term para-oiden means--but the political opinions beside the "song."
Thus, since Anya's narrative constantly interrupts JC's parodic opinions and in the end also thereby affects them, Diary of a Bad Year is not only a pai-abasis of parody, but perhaps a parody of parabasis. Agamben refers to the genre of the novel as performing a "staged dialogue [which I--intimately and parodically divided--opens a space off to the side ... and thus becomes nothing more than an exchange, simply a human conversation" (50-51). If Diary of a Bad Year is an instance of such a conversation, then Coetzee might be said to be novelizing the novel form as a means of involving the reader in a democratic conversation that has the potential of opening up a space for political intervention beside politics itself.
Earlier versions of this essay were presented at the "Coetzee in Australia" conference, University of New South Wales (January 2009) and at the Australasian Society for Continental Philosophy conference "Philosophy and the Work of Art," Monash University (November 2009). Thanks are due to audiences at these occasions for questions and comments, and in particular to Paul Patton, Catherine Mills and Mike Marais, who read earlier drafts.
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Mills, Catherine. "Life beyond Law: Biopolitics, Law and Futurity in Coetzee's Life and Times of Michael K. Griffith Law Review 15.1 (2006): 177-95.
Patton, Paul. "Becoming-Animal and Pure Life in Coetzee's Disgrace." Ariel 35.1-2 (2004): 101-19.
--. "Coetzee's Opinions." Paper presented at the "Coetzee in Australia" conference, University of New South Wales, 2009.
--. "Derrida, Politics and Democracy. to Come." Philosophy Compass 2.6 (2007): 766-80.
Rorty, Richard. Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989.
Schlegel, Friedrich. Philosophische Lehrjahre 1796-1806. Kritische Friedrich-Schlegel-Ausgabe XVIII. Ed. Ernst Behler et. al. Munich: Verlag Thomas Schoningn, 1963.
Schmitt, Carl. The Concept of the Political. Trans. George Schwab. Chicago: Chicago UP, 1996.
--. Political Theology. Trans. George Schwab. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1985.
Westphal, Merold. "Kierkegaard and the Anxiety of Authorship." The Death and Resurrection of the Author? Westport, CT: Greenwood. 23- 43.
Wilson, Deirdre and Dan Sperber. "On Verbal Irony" The Stylistics Reader. Ed.. Jean Jacques Weber. London: Arnold, 1996. 260-79.
(1.) As Marais puts it:
One of the most striking features of Coetzee's Australian fiction is his perfunctory treatment of narrative. For the most part, Elizabeth Costello consists of lecture narratives: i.e. narratives in which narrative, in the sense of "the narration of a succession of fictional events," is rudimentary, little more than a rhetorical device which advertises its rhetorical nature. Much of Diary of a Bad Year consists of formal essays held together by a slender narrative thread that literally takes the form of a footnote to the text of the essays. Even in Slow Man, one encounters a form of narrative minimalism: although devoid of the trappings of academic discourse, this is a novel in which nothing much ever happens. (193)
(2.) Anya refers to this character as "Senor C."The initials "JC" would most obviously seem to be Coetzee's initials, referring to "John Coetzee." But, as I discuss below, this identification is interrupted even as it is made. Interestingly, in particular on account of Diary's invocation of the paradoxical Kierkegaardian injunction to "learn to speak without authority" (151),"JC" are also the initials ofJohannes Climacus, one of Kierkegaard's pseudonyms used as "a device to distance the writer from his texts and to accentuate his role as an interpreter rather than the origin of their meaning" in order thereby to circumvent the writer's celebrity, which "can all too easily dispose the reader to accept what is written as true without examination [or) dispose the reader against the text" (Westphal 36- 37). The problem of authority is central to Diary; I discuss this below with reference to Coetzee's essay on Erasmus.
(3.) For Schmitt an emergency is not exactly the same as an exception: an emergency refers to the crisis and the exception to the state of affairs subsequent to it. The emergency would therefore be antecedent to the exception. See Gross (1070-701) for a discussion of the distinction between these two terms.
(4.) This ironic process is analogous to the Deleuzian notion of becoming-minor--becoming-animal, becoming-woman, becoming-black--that is constitutive of deterritorialization, which thereby defines individuals by their capacity "to affect and be affected and ... by the becomings of which they are capable," as Paul Patton puts it in a helpful reading of Disgrace (106). Patton connects the process of becoming-minor with Derrida's notion of the "to-come" (104) which I discuss below as the impossible politics beyond politics performed by Diary of a Bad Year.
(5.) "Die Ironicist eine permanente Parekbase" (85). It is important to note that, quite in keeping with the notion of Romanticism as a project that this "definition" suggests, Schlegel never managed to complete a final definition of irony. Instead, in many of his fragments and other writings Schlegel defines irony again and again. The best-known use of Schlegel's formula, of course, is by Paul de Man, whose difficult definition of irony is that it is "the permanent parabasis of the allegory of tropes" (179). This is a self- subverting definition because in effect it claims that any definition of irony--that is, in his terms, any explicating narrative of irony, any allegory of irony--is interrupted permanently by irony. At the same time, a self-subverting definition is the only kind of definition which would do justice to irony as disruption, since a coherent definition of irony would ignore the disruptive character of irony. See Bernstein and Chaouli for skeptical discussions of the politics of irony as permanent parabasis.
(6.) See Patton (775-76) for a sympathetic discussion of Derrida's analysis of democracy that highlights some of its lacunae, in particular the lack of specificity with regard to the "content of the 'democratic demand' as well as Derrida's "rather simple and anachronistic concept of democracy." Patton further draws a link between such a conception of democracy as an impossible, infinite project with no "intrinsic nature or real essence" ("Derrida, Politics" 774) and Richard Rorty's liberal irony, though he insists that Rorty's condemnation of Derrida's work as "largely irrelevant to public life and to political questions" (Rorty 83) cannot be sustained in view of Derrida"s work since the 1980s (767).
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|Title Annotation:||Coetzee, J.M.|
|Publication:||Twentieth Century Literature|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2011|
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