One less philosopher
A symposium on Samuel Beckett
Convened by: Caitlyn Lesiuk & Merlyn Gwyther-McCuskey
The relationship between Beckett and philosophy is fraught. Not simply because he always denied it, but because every avenue toward it consists of textual, anecdotal, or experiential denial. His works exhibit the hallmarks of philosophical investment, yet they do not lend themselves to the explicitness nor clarity that philosophy often demands. This seems to have encouraged rather than deterred philosophical engagement. In the space of 70 or so years Beckett has been heralded as a doyen of existentialism, cartesian radicalism and post-modern possibility. Every 20th century philosopher of significance has commented on his oeuvre.
The conjunction 'Beckett and Philosophy' yields less interest than the attraction that Beckett continues to hold for thinkers and producers alike. Rather than conjoining Beckett to philosophy, or posing ‘Beckett’s philosophy’, this short symposium will approach the (non)relation through a meditation on several of Beckett’s works across different mediums - poetry, prose, theatre, film, television - to ask what, if any, is Beckett’s thought?
This event will take place over 2 non-consecutive days.
Thursday June 15th on Zoom
Saturday June 17th at Old Warden's Lodge, Trinity College, UniMelb & on Zoom
Doors open at 11am
Beckett - 'je passerai le reste de ma vie à regretter les singes'.
Old Warden's Lodge, Trinity College. Near the corner of Royal Parade and Tin Alley. Enter from Royal Parade.
Thursday June 15th
18:00 - 19:30 (AEST) Zoom Presentation
Title: On Problems of Concept-formation in Samuel Beckett: There is no Philosophical Relation
Keynote: Arka Chattopadhyay (chaired by Justin Clemens)
Abstract: Is there a relation between philosophy and Beckett's literary project or is it instead a seductive red herring of non-relation? If it's a non-relation, can it situate the paradox of non-relation as another form of relationality? Looking at two of the most recent attempts by philosophers to engage with Beckett (Hélène Cixous' book Zero's Neighbour and Alain Badiou's two latest texts-- 'Samuel Beckett's Method' and the section on Beckett in The Immanence of Truths), we notice a comparative reluctance to map their own philosophical programmes onto Beckett, than what we have seen in the past.
If Cixous responds to Beckett's minimalism in a performative way, navigating the inevitable materiality of the late Beckettian texts, Badiou makes a relative departure from his earlier inscription of Beckett in his own philosophical project of eventality and reads him more on the writer's own terms. There are moments that flirt with the temptation of reading Beckett via sexual ontology (Cixous) or the movement from being to appearance (Badiou), but the engagements resort to what Badiou would call the 'intra-philosophical' effects of literature and art. What Badiou terms Beckett's dialectic of the real or the uncovering of the infinite are operations that emerge more from the Beckettian text (the 'prose-poem') than its homologous philosophical concepts in Badiou's system. This minimalist dialectic resonates with Cixous' mathematical configuration of the dialectical remnant as zero's infinite neighbourhood in Beckett.
From these philosophical non-relations in reading Beckett philosophically, we will come to examine some of the late prose works, especially Fizzes to see how these texts problematize body, space, time and the relational possibilities between the Subject and the Other. If these fizzles think, do they think philosophically? Do they have enough thought in them to form concepts of body, memory, history, movement, nature, speech, silence and so on? These ideas are all mentioned in the texts but they never become 'concepts' in a strong philosophical sense. The talk will thus try to activate the contradictions, the incapacities and the failures of conceptual thinking in Beckett that mark his non-relational dialectic with philosophy.
Bio: Arka Chattopadhyay is assistant professor, Humanities and Social Sciences at IIT Gandhinagar, India. He holds a Phd from University of Western Sydney and has been published in books like Deleuze and Beckett, Knots: Post-Lacanian Psychoanalysis, Literature and Film, Gerald Murnane: Another World in this One etc., and journals such as Textual Practice, Interventions, Samuel Beckett Today/Aujourd’hui, Psychoanalysis, Culture and Society, Sound Studies and The Harold Pinter Review. He has co-edited Samuel Beckett and the Encounter of Philosophy and Literature (2013) and guest-edited the SBT/A issue Samuel Beckett and the Extensions of the Mind. (2017). Arka is the founding editor of Sanglap and a contributing editor to Harold Pinter Review. He is the author of Beckett, Lacan and the Mathematical Writing of the Real (Bloomsbury Academic UK, 2019). He has co-edited a volume on Nabarun Bhattacharya (Bloomsbury India, 2020) and is working on a monograph on Posthumanism (Orient Blackswan) and two edited volumes: Ecological Entanglements and Understanding Badiou Understanding Modernism (Orient Blackswan and Bloomsbury). He has recently been awarded the Charles Wallace India Trust Fellowship 2022-2023 at the University of Edinburgh.
Chair: Justin Clemens is the author of A Foul Wind (2023) and co-author with Thomas H. Ford of Barron Field in New South Wales (2023). Previous poetry collections include Villain (2009) and The Mundiad (2004/2013). Declaring recently that “Philosophy will ruin your life” (Arena 2022), he nevertheless continues to read poetry, psychoanalysis and philosophy. He is Associate Professor in English at the University of Melbourne.
Saturday June 17th
Mastery and Genericity: Marx, Badiou, Beckett
Alain Badiou’s writings on Samuel Beckett make a significant intervention in the reception of the Irish writer. Central to this intervention is Badiou’s concept of the generic in Beckett’s work: for Badiou, what is at stake in Beckett’s writing is not the “dinner-party vision of despair” to which it has often been reduced, but the depiction of a generic desire and a generic humanity, “subtracting the figure of humanity from everything that distracts it, so as to examine the intimate articulation of its functions.” Yet while Badiou’s reading has been influential, Anglophone commentators do not seem to have recognised the origin of Badiou’s use of this term, generic, in the infamous concept of Gattungswesen in the 1844 “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts” of Karl Marx. This term, commonly translated into English as “species-being,” is known in French as être générique, or generic being. Badiou’s comments on the significance of this concept elsewhere, in his dialogues with Jean-Luc Nancy, indicate the pertinence of Gattungswesen to his reading of Beckett. All of the ambiguity in the history of interpretations of this term across the history of Marxism, and the questions of humanism and anti-humanism, particularity and universality, social class and the classless society, are thus revealed to be at stake in the turn to reading Beckett as a writer of the generic.
On the basis of this account of the place of Marx’s Gattungswesen in Badiou’s reading of Beckett, this paper will consider a work of Beckett’s focused on relations of authority, social power, inequality, and their failures: the play Fin de partie, or Endgame (1957). My reading will draw on the conception of generic being in responding to Theodor Adorno’s eminently anti-philosophical reading of Endgame, particularly his claim that Beckett’s play presents the collapse of Hegel’s master/slave dialectic, through the failure of any transformation of authority to take place. I argue, rather, that Endgame offers a profound treatment of the master/slave relation as one in which a shared generic humanity is both implicitly acknowledged and explicitly disavowed. The play’s ‘generic,’ post-apocalyptic setting thus articulates the possibility of a generic humanity to come.
The Counter-Poison. On Company.
The non-relation that is our topic is not merely a silent consequence of Beckett’s work, but is traced, repeatedly enacted, in this work. Nor is the non-relation without its effects on philosophy. In Company, one of the three later works that make up Nohow On, as elsewhere, Beckett withdraws the conditions for philosophy’s own self-relation. Beckett’s fiction undoes in particular the conditions for any modern philosophy. Reading Company will allow us to both identify these conditions and, as philosophers, suffer from their identification.
‘L’instant doré’ of Heard Dispossession: The Collective Impossible, Between Beckett and Bataille
Beckett and Georges Bataille are figures of crossed form – they are grubs, faecal anti-disciplinarians. And where the disciplinary contours of philosophy and literature falter in rendering subjective dispossession at the limits of the possible, their mongrel textual forms come closer to its frustrated realisation. As writers of expression over conceptual solidity, Beckett and Bataille approach a representation of the impossible, sharpening it into a marginal edge upon which ecstasy and incomprehensible pain intersect. On the margin lies a contradiction of human insufficiency; that community is impossible, but that the existence of possibility can only be in the communal. I want to use Bataille’s fractious system of thought to tempt an understanding of the impossible in Beckett, erected around the bits-and-pieces of ‘Quatre Poèmes: 3’ (1948) and the ‘instant doré,’ ‘golden moment,’ of Molloy (1951). In these works, Beckett constructs a poetics of sound that at once evokes the communal experience of subjective dispossession and dissolution, and the ‘repellent splendour’ of an encounter with the impossible, mediated through the act of writing. This paper will goad the Beckettian impossible’s presence, its complications for analysis and critique, and the issue obliquely raised of the interpretive act’s form when concrete thought and absolute object have been denied (by author or by text).
Lillian Phillips is an Honours student in English at the University of Melbourne. She also works as a music journalist.
“grate on scrannel pipes”: from the mirlitonnades to Worstward Ho
In the 1970s, Beckett started to write down brief texts on paper scraps: these are the mirlitonnades. A mirliton — also known as a eunuch flute or onion flute — is like a kazoo. Its use dates back perhaps to the 16th century, and is notorious for producing a somewhat bleating nasal tone. The word ‘mirliton’ can also designate a late eighteenth-century hussar’s hat, or a famous cabaret opened by Aristide Bruant, whose physiognomy has been immortalised in a photograph by Nadar and in a poster by Toulouse-Lautrec. Many of these odd little verses — the canon now officially numbers 59 of them — riff on philosophers and philosophical problems, for example, the celebrated lines which commence ‘flux cause,’ and expressly invoke Heraclitus. As Alain Badiou has recently remarked, Beckett thereby seeks to uncover ‘the impostures of renegacy and the arrogance of the non-dupe.’ Thus taking up the material of the paper scrap, the allusions to early modern English lyric, and to philosophical maxims, this presentation will examine what the critic David Wheatley calls ‘a tour de force of poetic economy even by Beckett’s own standards’.