“Between Absence and Forgetting” — A Review of Human Acts

At 3:AM Magazine, I wrote a review about Han Kang’s latest book Human Acts. I wrote about her last book, The Vegetarian, on the blog here.

Below is an excerpt of the new review. Follow the link to the full piece.

Suffering from an unnamed illness, all J. wants is to die—which, as Blanchot describes for us in his essay ‘Literature and the Right to Death’, is her inalienable right—yet the narrator ruins her chances. In the essay, Blanchot takes issue with Sartre’s ‘What is Literature?’ because he offers a definition of literature that only perpetuates the primordial lie of language. The so-called committed work’s language is forced to “designate, demonstrate, order, refuse, interpolate, beg, insult, persuade, insinuate”. Sentences are then specialised and instrumentalised towards a specific end. The grave risk here is articulated a bit differently from Blanchot by Adorno: “The error of the primacy of [commitment] as it is exercised today appears clearly in the privilege accorded to tactics over everything else. The means have become autonomous to the extreme. Serving the ends without reflection, they have alienated themselves from them.”1 Committed literary works lose their object of action because they forget that language first murders, as Hegel might say, its referents in service to mere presence—mere sake of behaving politically. “When even genocide becomes cultural property in committed literature,” Adorno writes elsewhere, “it becomes easier to continue complying with the culture that [gives] rise to the murder.”2 In affect alone, atrocious experiences are straitjacketed into fixed meanings. These kinds of works imagine themselves as counteractive agents to the strategies of violence and domination that governments still practice today, literally murderous and not, and continually risk complicity with the very regimes of brutality themselves. Both Adorno’s and Blanchot’s responses to this literary affectation result in high-modernist works that, through a resistance to exaggerated forms of politicking, appear in reality as apolitical but offer a more political resistance by not participating in the “rigid coordinate system” of authoritarian systems. For both of these thinkers, it is not an author’s or text’s political orientation that is at most risk, but the problem of representation itself.

While Human Acts does not resist denotative meaning like Beckett’s The Unnameable, it sympathises with the question that Blanchot raises in his essay. When J. opens her eyes and seethes at the narrator, it is because he made her open her eyes and refused her right to death. This opens onto a question of place and action: Does the very act of writing itself violate this right to death, or does it constellate a map of the ways in which language attempts to fill the void it instantiates in the first place?

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