Friday, December 19, 2008

Quotation; Interruption

From Walter Benjamin's "What is Epic Theater?"

One can go even further and remember that interruption is one of the fundamental devices of all structuring. It goes far beyond the sphere of art. To give only one example, it is the basis of quotation. To quote a text involves the interruption of its context.

In a way, by quoting this text about quotation, I have interrupted Benjamin's context, his discussion of the "quotable gesture" in epic theater. As my quote stands, you may not even realize that this is about gestures or even theater, except that I have told you so. Yet this violence of extraction allows the quotation to take wing; it reinvigorates it with new life as I place it in a new context. Yet to quote also interrupts the context of placement. When I quote something, it interrupts my own prose, creating a cacophany of voices, or, to put in M. M. Bakhtin's terms, heteroglossia. I often find in reading other people's work that I find moving from someone's own prose to a quotation can be quite jolting. When reading my own work, I find that I skim through my own quotations. But that is probably because I already know them.

But quotation as an interruption necessary for all structuring is merely an example of interruption, merely part of the chaos necessary for cosmos. It reminds me so much of Aristophanes' hiccups in Plato's Symposium. After Pausanias (I think it was him anyway) gives rather beautiful if not overwrought sentiments about Eros, a solemn moment, Aristophanes begins to hiccup, bringing us back down to reality that we are participating in a drinking party in celebration of Agathon. This, too, is part of Plato's larger structuring devices, part of the larger point that we cannot maintain meditation too long, we cannot attain knowledge, pure knowledge, and stay there. We must, too, hiccup. We are not (yet) bodiless souls. This interruption, though, foreshadows that of Alcibiades, who crashes the party and, while everyone else gives a speech about Love, Eros, Alcibiades launches into a drunken speech in praise of Socrates. Yet, in this very drunkenness we find amazing sublimity mixed with crassness. Through Alcibiades' eulogizing, we find that Socrates, a very ugly man, may be the best illustration of the form of Beauty, a beauty well beyond sense perception, the desire/love for which (re)produces virtues, leading one closer and closer to the true knowledge of Beauty and Good. In these cases, indeed, interruption is the basis for order. Or, at the very least, it makes structuring intelligible and tolerable.

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