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Stanton B. Garner, Jr. is Associate Professor of English at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He is the author of The Absent Voice: Narrative Comprehension in the Theater (1989) and has recently completed a book entitled Bodied Spaces: Phenomenology and Performance in Contemporary Drama.
Under mescaline it happens that approaching objects appear to grow smaller. A limb or other part of the body, the hand, mouth or tongue seems enormous, and the rest of the body is felt as a mere appendage to it. The walls of the room are 150 yards apart, and beyond the walls is merely an empty vastness [....].
Sometimes motion is no longer seen, and people seem to be transported magically from one place to another. The subject is alone and forlorn in empty space, "he complains that all he can see clearly is the space between things, and that this space is empty. Objects are in a way still there, but not as one would expect .... "Men are like puppets and their movements are performed in a dreamlike slow-motion.
--Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Phenomenology of Perception(1)
Within a year of Samuel Beckett's death (in 1989), a critical movement was already well underway to reassess the relationship of his career to its twentieth-century philosophical and aesthetic contexts. Rejecting the traditional placement of Beckett's work within the "theater of the absurd," such books as Steven Connor's Samuel Beckett: Repetition, Theory and Text (1988), the collection Rethinking Beckett: A Collection of Critical Essays (1990), and Thomas Trezise's study of Beckett's prose Into the Breach: Samuel Beckett and the Ends of Literature (1990) have attempted to resituate Beckett's literary and dramatic canon within the theoretical milieu of poststructuralism and to find within his art an epistemological and linguistic critique closer to Derrida and Deleuze than to Sartre and Heidegger. As a result of this critical movement, what we might call the phenomenological/existentialist Beckett has been increasingly displaced by the account of a more radically contemporary, deconstructive artist.
Among these recent studies, Into the Breach offers perhaps the most conscious theoretical attempt to reread Beckett from this perspective, and its particular targets make clear the extent to which this critical revisionism has set itself, explicitly or implicitly, against phenomenological modes of reading. Discussing the shift from third- to first-person narration in Beckett's fiction, Trezise writes:
[The] adoption of the first person bespoke... an extraordinary intensification of Beckett's concern with the problem of subjectivity, and furthermore, came at the very moment when French intellectual life experienced the overwhelming influence of existential phenomenology, especially in its Sartrian tendencies. While the historical coincidence of these two developments may not have fostered a distinct phenomenological school of Beckett criticism, it certainly favored the pervasive association of Beckett's work with the ideology of existential humanism. And since this ideology derives from a phenomenological understanding of the human subject, any interpretation taking issue with it must ask the basic and long-neglected question whether his explicit preoccupation with the status of the subject necessarily makes of Beckett a phenomenologist, and hence whether his mature prose genuinely lends itself to a phenomenological reading. The present study was born of the question, or more precisely, of the conviction that the phenomenological approach gains whatever insight it may afford from a conspicuous blindness to the dimension of Beckett's prose that signals the exhaustion or failure of phenomenology itself .... (4-5) Trezise tracks this phenomenology to its historical origins in the philosophy of Edmund Husserl, and he critiques its supposed assumptions through strategies deliberately modeled on Derrida's deconstructive reading of Husserlian phenomenology in Speech and Phenomena (1967) and other texts of the 1960s.3 His reading of Beckett's prose seeks to establish the Beckettian "exhaustion" in these terms: that the unitary subject within Beckett's fiction is caught up in "the immemorial dispossession of subjectivity itself" (33), through which such principles as origin, identity, and interiority are subject to deferral andfelure, or "breach." Beckettian subjectivity, Trezise argues, is never given to itself as something distinct, unvarying, present; rather, it is displaced by the "already" of temporality and signification, invaded by an intersubjectivity and by "the pre-originary impersonality of the first person itself" (66). Beckett's oeuvre--and "the subject of literature" as it is posited therein--must be understood in terms of "a general economy of signification that conditions and exceeds the universe of phenomenology" (160).
This particular form of theoretical revisionism, with its attack on phenomenological models of subjectivity and perception, is, of course, a familiar feature of the theoretical landscape. Although the phenomenological revolution inaugurated by Edmund Husserl continues to make profound methodological contributions to philosophy and other disciplines, its application to the fields of literary and performance studies has been challenged--and, with some notable exceptions, largely precluded--by a number of interlocking theoretical assaults. Semiotics has shifted "meaning" from the intending consciousness to signifying systems, relocating the perceptual object within the codified boundaries of the sign. Challenging "the metaphysics of presence," deconstruction has attacked the notions of constituting subjectivity and self-presence, as well as such binary categories as subject and object, inside and outside, the essential and the sensory, upon which (so it is claimed) phenomenology hinges. Marxism, gender and cultural studies, and other modes of materialist analysis have furthered the "depersonalizing" of experience by proposing that subjectivity is discursively constituted, a function of cultural, political, and socio-economic operations. On the artistic front, certain currents of postmodernism have extended this subversion of the subject through an aesthetic (or anti-aesthetic) of decentering and fragmentation. Perhaps nothing links the diverse movements of contemporary literary and performance theory more completely than this theoretical shift in which the subject as experiencing agent is recast in terms of "subject positions" and consciousness is dispersed within the field of the externally constituted.
It is not my intent here to challenge poststructuralism as a body of critical practices, or to dispute the deconstructive reading of Beckett's canon, a reading which is clearly overdue and which has often brilliantly illuminated the play of Beckett's language and such signature Beckettian principles as deferral, dispossession, repetition, and absence. Rather, what I would like to do is to question the repudiation of phenomenology upon which this poststructuralist/deconstructionist revisionism so frequently depends. For this purpose, Trezise's argument is particularly useful, since it renders explicit a set of methodological assumptions and procedures prevalent in contemporary applications of Derridean theory. I would like to pause over its central theoretical strategy--the rehearsing of Derrida reading Husserl--in order to forestall, in two areas at least, the closure implied in its dismissal of phenomenology. The first area has to do with what is admitted under the term "phenomenology." Through his almost exclusive focus on the Husserlian formulation of phenomenology, Trezise (like Derrida) fixes this tradition in its opening, most preliminary articulations, robbing it of its developments and internal revisions--in short, of its historical contingency, its literal status as "movement." Husserl himself stated that the phenomenological project was developmental: "We have expounded phenomenology as a science in its beginnings."(4) The subsequent history of phenomenology has confirmed this assessment, as philosophers and theorists in a number of fields have subjected the models and methodologies of phenomenological investigation to recurrent internal critique, reinterpreting and often abandoning such aspects of Husserlian phenomenology as transcendental subjectivity and the "bracketing" of the empirical, pressing this analysis toward fuller engagement with what Derrida considered the "torments" of phenomenology, temporality and intersubjectivity.s
When we consider the theoretical richness of the phenomenological tradition- the ontological problematics of Heidegger and Sartre; Paul Ricoeur's phenomenological hermeneutics; Gaston Bachelard's "poetics of space"; phenomenological explorations of the body by Elaine Scarry and medical philosophers; feminist appropriations of phenomenology by Judith Butler, Iris Young, and Sandra Bartky; the emergence of "life-world" issues in history, sociology, and the theory of technology; the aesthetic theories of Mikel Dufrenne, Roman Ingarden, and recent reader-response theorists; other applications of phenomenological models and insights to the study of literature, film, and (in the recent work of Bruce Wilshire and Bert States) to drama itself(6)--it is hard to escape the conclusion that the phenomenology repudiated by Trezise is, in very large part, a polemical construction, narrowly derived from a single reading of historically limited texts. The phenomenological subject as theorized within Husserlian thought--a subject present to itself in transcendental ideality--is clearly in retreat in the writings of Beckett, but this retreat actually began much earlier, through the critiques of a phenomenological tradition …