Unidentifiable Literary Objects:
29 June 2018, Nottingham Trent University
‘Who’ll ever be able to read a thing like this?’
Image credit: Emma Cocker (2017)
On 29 June 2018, the Critical Poetics Research Group at Nottingham Trent University hosted a symposium on the ‘Unidentifiable Literary Object’. Speakers included: Clare Connors (University of East Anglia), Marie-Dominique Garnier (University of Paris VIII), Nicholas Royle (University of Sussex), Judith Still (University of Nottingham), Sarah Wood (University of Kent). Hélène Cixous and Eric Prenowitz (University of Leeds) will also joined us us via Skype.
You can find the speakers’ abstracts here.
The symposium concluded with a public reading and conversation with Gabriel Josipovici, described in the Guardian as ‘one of the very best writers now at work in the English language, and a man whose writing, both in fiction and in critical studies, displays a unity of sensibility and intelligence and deep feeling difficult to overvalue at any time’.
About the ULO
In H.C. pour la vie, c’est a dire… (2000/2006) Jacques Derrida describes his first reading of Hélène Cixous’s writing as an encounter with an ‘unidentifiable literary object’ [objet littéraire non identifiable] or ‘ULO’: ‘What is this? I asked myself more or less. What is happening here? What is happening to me? What genre? Who could ever read this?’ The ULO ‘arrived like a meteor in my garden’, he remarks elsewhere, recalling the ‘double feeling’ of ‘dazzlement and anxiety’ it engendered (‘From the Word to Life’, 2004/2006). The ULO is, of course, the domain of both Derrida and Cixous: their texts stretch genre, press at the limits of creative and critical thinking, and open up the differences between constative and performative modes of writing. This symposium aimed to explore the nature and possibilities for such unidentifiable literary objects, bringing together the work of writers and scholars whose own texts play at the intersections between creative and critical theory and practice.
In starting to think and write about the ULO, there is first, perhaps, a distinction to be made between the ‘unidentifiable’ and the ‘unidentified’. While Beverley Bie Brahic translates Cixous’s account of Derrida’s remark in ‘The Book I Don’t Write’ (2007) as an ‘unidentified literary object’, hinting at something that might be comprehended at some point in the future, Eric Prenowitz stresses in ‘Cracking the Book’ (2006) that the ‘unidentifiable’ cannot and will not be determined, deciphered or appropriated—it remains unknown. By excluding the possibility of its identification, Prenowitz says, ‘Derrida is precisely leaving its future open—to reading(s). He thus implicitly opposes reading to identification, the readable to the identifiable’. In this way, the ULO is something that is necessarily unforeseeable, not recognised when it arrives, perhaps not even arriving.
How might we begin, as Derrida asks, to ‘read a thing like this?’ This symposium engaged with the potential of ULOs to enable us to start to think, read and write in radically new ways. In Rootprints (1994/1997), Mireille Calle-Gruber describes a Cixousian text (or ULO) as embodying ‘the birth of the impossible […] the monster—ab-norm, unnamable’. Remarking on this resistance to classification in ‘The Book I Don’t Write’, Cixous compares her work to ‘one of my painfully familiar and incomplete animals’: ‘To the question: is it a book? I say it’s always a struggle. What is a book? … Often I hand it over to my editor like a dubious child. —What’s its name? —I don’t know yet’. This notion of the monstrous textual birth or incomplete animal links in clear ways to Cixous’s writing on the ‘unforeseeable’ and Derrida’s thinking of futurity (‘l’à venir/l’avenir’), but also feeds into a wider discussion of the literary object as ‘unnamable’ and even ‘unthinkable’. The disruptive power of what has become known as ‘creative-criticism’ is that we will never really be able to say what it is. Such ‘intransigent, willful writing’, as Rachel Blau du Plessis (1996) calls it—writing that resists identification at every turn—is not limited to so-called ‘postmodern’ texts or those that overtly play at the borders of the creative and the critical, but rather has a long and secret history in both literature and critical/philosophical writing.
Seeking to consider the effects and impact of ULOs—from Cixous’s Le Prenom de Dieu (1967) to Love Itself: In the Letterbox (2005/2008)—this symposium looked to open out the discussion to include ways in which other literary or critical texts might be re-interpreted as ULOs. Thus while it is inspired by Cixous, whose approaches to the fruitful tensions between creative and critical writing have had a profound and lasting influence on literary theory, we encouraged work touching on or touched by the ULO in any number of ways.