Teju Cole: Restitution

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1. In The Perfect Crime (1995), Jean Baudrillard states that the disgrace of the xxist century consists in “the absence of things from themselves” (1995, p. 2). Mere illusions define the real, meaningless world, he adds. He had already said before that since the end of the modern bonanza, during which Western revolutions exploited—both social and political—the human kind has found itself in the middle of a hangover that, through a new stage of value called fractal—or radiant, or viral—, loses all points of reference to assess the world, making judgments radiate in all directions, without concert. In The Transparency of Evil (1993), Baudrillard refers to this present, only exacerbated after his death in March 2007, as the time “after the orgy.” Crammed with sex, politics and aesthetics, contemporary discourse lacks sexuality, politics or aesthetics in themselves: “Sex is no longer located in sex itself, but elsewhere—everywhere else, in fact” (1993, p. 9). The same applies to most of the eminently human things, which through hyper-materialization became trans-materialization.

We can watch the symptoms of this circumstance in every corner of ordinary life. National economies are based on credit, which are granted according to speculation; the aesthetic value is capricious to the extent that, after exposing the spurious one, he can argue artistic intention in his falsehood; sexuality develops online with more vitality that at close range; in short, things cannot be found in themselves.

2. If all what is human suffers this hypertrophy, language, the greatest human achievement, cannot remain immune. Ten years ago, I led myself into a pyrrhic battle against the impoverishment of my students’ use of language; today I have learned to ignore capricious spellings, transpositions of numbers for letters, “hyperlinks” and “hash-tags”—internet neologisms left alone. To advocate for a clean language “after the orgy” not only seems stale and pedantic, but almost irrational. Our languages are now trans-languages, to the extent that they address also the machine, the prosthesis and the vacuum—which do reply. But the machine and the prosthesis also communicate with each other; thus the lack of accent marks, the presence of phone codes and the random characters followed by the indispensable “.com” must be tolerated. This is an example of the perfect crime reported by Baudrillard, an unsolvable crime because there is no such per se; the things are not in the things—but growing cysts are.

3. And while returning to the time of the orgy is impossible—and probably undesirable—, there is an obligation to restore its meaning to the things. Words to words, history to history, tragedy to tragedy—among everything else. I think about this at the very moment I find the following passage from Teju Cole’s Open City (2012), in which the protagonist Julius talks with a Native American patient. The talk is darkened by the patient’s struggle to achieve historical recognition of her people’s extermination in the New York area, almost four centuries ago: “It isn’t right that people are not terrified by this because this is a terrifying thing that happened to a vast population. And it’s not in the past, it is still with us today” (2012, p. 27). How does the fact remain in the present? Precisely, because it is not given a place in the past through historical recognition.

The invocation of the fact allows the fact to rest, as with ghosts. “The fact”, let me be clear, in us. Without invocation, the fact chases the injustice—or at least the negligence—that lies in not allowing the story to be put in History.

4. Beyond our control and beyond our will, tragedy happens. This is precisely the defining element of tragedy: it—rather—happens despite our control, despite our will—and perhaps despite our merit. At the beginning of these notes I have referred, according to Baudrillard, to the disgrace of the century. Much more grotesque than many tragedies, our situation has not happened despite us, but because of us. In other words, our situation is not tragic.

5. Is it not Twitter the most hypertrophied metastasis of tumorous languages? I do not know if Baudrillard’s view on Twitter—inagurated eight months before the philosopher’s death—is on the record, but I doubt that even Baudrillard could have foreseen the possibilities of the platform. I will not describe my encounters and clashes with the site: they must be very similar to any other’s. But precisely because the flaws of micro blogging are familiar to everyone, the peculiarity with which Teju Cole reinstates through Twitter meaning to the words, names to the stories and humanity to the language should be enough to amaze.

The Nigerian-American novelist calls his tweets “small fates”. They describe the often fatal fate of those forgotten individuals who back in time participated in the dubious honor of sharing their misfortune with the press. But Cole portraits these stories under the physical-made-aesthetic constraints of Twitter, which allows no more than 140 characters per post—all of it framed perfectly under famous premises by Roland Barthes: “The regime of meaning is that of the guarded liberty” and by Baltasar Gracian: “What good, if brief, twice as good”.

In Cole’s words, it is “a form of writing for which there is no exact English term: fait divers. This is a French expression, in common use for centuries, for a certain kind of newspaper piece: a compressed report of an unusual happening. What fait divers means literally is “incidents,” or “various things.” The nearest English equivalent is “news briefs” or, more recently, “news of the weird.” The fait divers has a long and important history in French literature. Sensationalistic though it is, it has influenced the writing of Flaubert, Gide, Camus, Le Clézio and Barthes. In Francophone literature, it crossed the line from low to high culture” (from Berfrois).

This is one way of reinstating tragedy to the simple human misery. And also a way of containing the language’s hypertrophy, foresaw by Baudrillard and fueled by Twitter—even if through one of its channels.

April 2012

Versión en español aquí