In academic environments, for instance, the precedent is given as bliss; a surplus, yes, but one that must be embraced as a literal source: a spring, a birthplace, a cradle, a home. Being with the source (and at the source) is, here, a being-home. And indeed, it is only in the formulation of the precedent that one can find one’s home. According to this logic, to be without a precedent (which is to say, to be original) is to be homeless, in the most fundamental sense of the word.
Because this homelessness is hard to bear, an entire project has been created for the elimination of the predecessor. Indeed, there is no such thing as poetry without the rejection of the forerunner. As Robert Pinsky has pointed out somewhere, poetry is always what it is not, insofar as poetry can only say something that doesn’t already exist. In order for poetry to be creative it has to formulate something from scratch. Otherwise it is mere epigonism, unproductive repetition, pleonastic nonsense. So here we have the to-be-or-not-to-be of creativity: to be with a predecessor, and therefore redundant, or not to be with a predecessor, and therefore acknowledged as original.
Of course, we are familiar with this project of the rejection of precedence, because we are citizens of postmodernity, and its discourse of demythification is familiar to us. It has given us plenty of space to think of precedence as something we might be better without.
Whacking the forerunner
There is a "contamination anxiety" shaping the artistic choices of writers in general. Jonathan Lethem says it is a symptom of modernism. If what one fears in relation to the source is its ability to contaminate (to impose itself as a necessary repetition), then the source is in truth not venerated but abhorred. The source needs to be buried under the weight of its own significance, never to see the light of day again. If such is the case, then the original/initial is a parasite: one that parasitizes literature – insofar as we think of literature as a domain that renews itself all the time, instead of accepting to be caught up in the continuous loop of reiteration.
The parasitical original/initial stands there, in the middle of everything (whence it can radiate its venom) like an inconvenience. It upsets the natural flow of things. It grows like a boil about to burst. And because of that it needs to be evicted, excised, operated out; removed like a gangrene. Any discussion of precedence needs to employ this language of repugnance if the writer were to be liberated from the terror of antecedence.
This aspect becomes apparent when the predecessor has grown to a size where it cannot be avoided. When it has become an automatic reference, a mental trick the role of which is to sort out the inconvenience of creativity, this source (this precedence that exceeds) disturbs purely and simply. It has no other function than that of inhibition. And its shadow is cast so thickly upon all acts of creation that no exercise can ever come out immaculate, unaltered, un-referenced. Take the example of the Bible, of Shakespeare, of the Classics. When they come up in any context they take the shape of ‘it goes without saying.’ It’s this ‘without saying’ that is troublesome to the writer who is striving to make a name for him/herself. This writer arrives at the feast of recognition already burdened by a name that is not their own. Their very name has already been worn by others, hijacked by them, stolen before the acknowledgment of any presence (their own presence most importantly).
So the ideal situation for a beginner would be to ignore this precedence that obstructs his development. To ignore it, i.e. to make it seem invisible. One would have to write, therefore, with the only intention of hiding the traces of the forerunner. Every instance of writing will have to be an affirmation of one’s originality, even when that originality is a figment of one’s imagination.
But this project would be forever obstructed by the affirmative presence of the discourse that stands behind writing. The discourse, the overwhelming precedent of all forms of creative action, poses the precedent as necessary. Only someone growing in the shadow of a precedent can be counted as significant to a discourse. They would have to acknowledge the shadow even in the most original of their moments. Because there is no situation worse than that of a poet without precedents. That’s what the Academia will argue.
The foreigner that speaks better
The fear of the one-without-precedent is the typical fear of originality, insofar as the original is terrible. Let us say it again: the original is impolite, distinctive; in other words, the original is truly foreign.
The antidote to barbarism is subjection to familiarity. And here is where the precedent is in its most powerful state. The precedent is a guarantor. Without it, the city may crumble. Without it, there will be no rules. Without it (to embody a seventeenth-century fear of John Locke), humanity is likely to return to its state of pre-humanity: a state without laws, without governing bodies, and therefore without foreigners.
In the land of the precedent everything must fall under the rubric of domestic familiarity. The whole family, down to the newborn, needs to know perfectly well the extent of the precedent in order to reconstruct the entire genealogical tree of the family’s ‘romance.’ And so, the problem of the precedent isn’t quite a problem of the poet alone, but one that transgresses professional or artistic boundaries.
But the poet is the figure we are interested in, because in the poet it is easier to trace the trajectory of thoughts; because the poet writes or memorizes, and therefore, brings along with him/herself the specter of the predecessor. With his (inherited – how else?) ability to inscribe, a poet materializes this specter better than any other sign-maker, because it’s in the case of the poet that the dependence on the precedent appears in the form of an artistic culpability. I take this from Harold Bloom, who mentions “the only guilt that matters to a poet, the guilt of indebtedness.”
A poet cannot speak without speaking the language of someone who spoke before. And the antecedence of this speech act is sure to (im)pose the precedent as a guest: a foreigner, someone who comes from outside the current event, like a specter that haunts.
So the precedent is a foreigner who speaks. And one whose speech is taken to be a better form of expression. The cult of ancestors depends on this better-saying in order to assert a tradition whose sole purpose is to salvage the future from its straying away from the source.
A battle against redundancy
The project of writing-after-the-precedent takes shape under the spasms caused by the fear of tautology. Tautology, i.e. the thing already said and which can't be said again because saying-again is punishable by law (the law of grammar or that of logic, it matters not).
Tautology comes about as an interdiction in its own right, one rhetorical in nature but which poses precisely the problem of the precedent as a necessary absence. In order for the precedent to be acknowledged it has to be obliterated. It has to be acknowledged as non-presence. Pure absence, as Jacques Derrida has pointed out, is not exactly the way to put the problem in relation to the trace. A trace is not a lack. A trace is always already present, always already formulating the present event, the present utterance.
|Source: Write Right|
A trace, i.e. a presence of the precedent as an absence-that-matters, is something akin to inscriptions, where what is being inscribed is always already there in the form of a discourse that returns. Of course, this discourse is pushed to the margins all the time, minimized, reduced to an apparent absence, in order to maximize its efficiency. Discourses are productive only if they are well hidden; if their subjects don’t get a glimpse of the game that is being played in the background. That’s why Derrida insists on the absent presence that characterizes a trace. With the trace in full sight, the discourse would be exposed (and therefore lose its efficiency). Without it, the discourse would thrive, because it is the absence that articulates its power, its very possibility to be. So in order to avoid discursive suicide, the trace (the precedent) has to go; it has to be as though it had never been. But this is far from being a killing of the precedent. On the contrary, it marks the consolidation of its position. A precedent that isn’t perceived as present is a precedent capable of influence. One can see this in the case of truisms, where the impossibility to locate the precedent is truly frustrating, but where one knows that the precedent exists because one can see its effects.