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In the Place of LanguageLiterature and the Architecture of the Referent$

Claudia Brodsky

Print publication date: 2009

Print ISBN-13: 9780823230006

Published to Fordham Scholarship Online: March 2011

DOI: 10.5422/fso/9780823230006.001.0001

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(p.xi) preface

(p.xi) preface

Marked Change: A Brief Account

In the Place of Language
Fordham University Press

NO ONE WHO reads it will be more surprised than I that this book, which began as a study of what building is doing in pivotal works by Goethe, turned, step by step, into a theory of the referent. A skeletal chronology of its origin may serve the purpose of explaining not the surprising conclusion to which this study comes—the very purpose which the progress of the book ends up serving—but why that end was so thoroughly unexpected.

For several years I had understood that analyses of certain “mature” works by Goethe, those that composed a renewal and turning-point in his literary writing, and whose conception was, by his own appraisal, the most farreaching, would be as difficult to complete as they were essential to the completion of what was, during those years, a book-in-progress. That book-in-progress, which grew to include studies of several other authors as I continued to teach, and write on, Goethe, had itself started out as part of another book, a footnote to whose planned introduction developed into a book. The last and least foreseeable of these three works, on Descartes, was published some years ago; the first two, substantively written, and, in parts, published, before the present study of Goethe was completed, will now be published in their entirety after it.1

(p.xii) This convoluted history, confusing to read in brief, was more densely disorienting to experience at length. Regarding it in retrospect does not explain or dispel that disorientation but may at least help to indicate its basis. What now appears evident is that, even as I worked with it, my conception of the object of study to which I was first drawn, never straightforward to start with, changed, and this despite the fact that the object in question, while manifesting itself differently in diverse discursive contexts, remained the same. That conceptual change took place accumulatively and gradually, which is to say, long before I knew it, or recognized it as such. Completed, individual analyses of works seemed to cohere and make sense, and yet, in each instance, with, and even within, each group of works analyzed, the specific object of analysis seemed both increasingly important to the discourse of the texts investigated and increasingly different from itself, a development which, by any logical measure, made no sense, or at least defied coherent, conceptual, or theoretical description.

My continuing work on Goethe, rather than completing or countermanding this change, pushed it, as the expression goes, “over the edge,” or, to use the conventional hermeneutic figure, off the ever-receding horizon that always accompanies and delimits the understanding of historical phenomena in the present. For Goethe's were literary texts in which the verbal manifestations of a certain nonverbal occurrence, a kind of discursive recourse appearing at once necessary and extraneous to discourse, were most conspicuously self-evident—composed and located right on the surface, so to speak, of the stories they told—yet what the unmistakable clarity of their presentation brought me to was a kind of wall, a sense of ignorance, or at least bafflement, as to “what” they were, i.e., why they were, and what they were doing, in plain cognitive sight.

(p.xiii) Thus my study of Goethe wrenched the original problem or question my work had addressed back to its own beginning. That original problem arose with my perception of a kind of textual presence whose usefulness within each text—a practical function so fundamental to its integral composition as to become nearly invisible in the text, even when most explicit—could only be explicated, if at all, starting from the conceptual and imaginative premises of the very text it served. I was unable to understand, let alone explain, the tacit persistence of something indicated within individual texts as if constituted both within them and outside any text, something that, while essential to the very formation and development of each text, was itself specifically not a textual form.

All I knew about this appearance was that it was not another literary device, uncatalogued only because ignored, and all I didn't know took, over and over, the form of the same unspoken question: Why do many of the most transformative literary and philosophical works in the western tradition, discursive works whose art and theory change how and even what it is we understand, so often refer to, indeed often openly depend upon, nondiscursive, and nonpictoral, architectonic and architectural form? Why does a form defined by its nonfigural status and physical stasis appear critically and imaginatively necessary to texts that mark an historic change, not only in their own discursive field—in how we conceive that field and, intertwined with it, and with each practitioner's particular forms and aims, the fact of discourse itself as given formal medium—but in our ability to conceive, in memorable, historical form, events we ourselves observe and undergo? The fact that many of the works, in which reference to the architectonic and architectural appeared essential to the constitution of the works themselves, contradicted, at least in part, the function and effects of that referencing in others, suggested to me that I had either read too little or too much—more, in any event, than my original conception of this textual occurrence could contain. When, eventually, it became difficult for me to tell the difference between too much and too little, the very manner in which I understood “architectonic” and “architectural” changed instead: these appeared no longer loosely interchangeable descriptive terms but as the names of a single nonrepresentational form having two (p.xiv) contradictory functions, each of which was fundamental to the purpose of articulate understanding. And in that contradiction lay the change in my own understanding of the discursive appearance of architectural form, a movement from a pure formalism to the form of historicity.

The two views composing this contradiction coincided with, without canceling, each other. They involved, on the one hand, the perception of the architectural as architectonic, an independent, self-containing form whose necessary externality to discourse made its pivotal inclusion in discourse all the more critical, and, thus, in itself significant; and, on the other, that of the architectural as the material form which, concretely, individually, renders temporality perceptible, in that, rather than theoretically setting time aside as a given, necessary if hypothetical (or “a priori”) form of sensory perception and intuition—a synthetic component, with space, of a representationally limited theory of cognition—it instead serves to substantiate time by way of a certain transformation of material givens into something else, something of practical use. Precisely by subsisting in time, such a form materializes temporal difference, further allowing, as matter individuated by action, the discretely historical to come into view.

Thus a project that began, with Kant, as an investigation of discursive references to logical, or self-defining, structures that appear as if ex nihilo in literature and philosophy—temporally impervious architectonic structures both distinct from, and comprehending of, the metamorphic discourse that represents our partial experience of the world—became the study of indications of and meditations on architecture that neither structures nor represents but rather demarcates experience on earth. Such demarcation does not “take place” figuratively “within” language but rather, as indicated by language, on and under the material ground on which we stand. That is to say, it takes place—in the “literal” or concrete sense—where language has no proper place, within the material itself, and in so doing, it both “takes the place of” language and installs language on earth, providing a place for language to provide the “grounds” for history, for good and for ill, in the material world.2 Alternately occasioning (p.xv) and compelling cognition and thinking, these earthly demarcations indicate what remains available for understanding even as the faces and forms of what they mark appear forever gone, destroyed by the implacable activity of humanity and nature over time.

Architecture as the mark of temporal activity that allows us to call such activity historical, rather than as an architectonic, synchronic, internally self-defining and encompassing structure, became the focus, then, of a separate study, beginning with Hegel, and it was in reading the discursive arc of architectural activity displayed in Goethe from within that altered conceptual context that I stumbled, somewhat startlingly, upon a form of marking I had not considered as related to the architectural at all.

That form is the form of the referent, of demarcation rather than signification, and of the referent as neither given in nature nor by thought—each equally impossible3 derivations—but made. The making of reference through architectural activity of some kind, the forming of a place to which perception returns, on which imagination lingers, and language renders its “own,”—that is, both inherently and externally, or historically, significant—is the story that (p.xvi) shapes the dramatic and prosaic plots of Goethe's Faust plays and Wahlverwandtschaften. A visibly and literally unremarkable scene, recorded in another, partly visual medium, may serve as the most explicit, if negative, introduction to the earthly construction of the referent that Goethe's texts in specific and literature in general represent. For literary texts can bring to mind that which is never present to those whom it immediately affects, demarcations that, unlike changing nominal locations, are the material signs of history itself, which is to say, of the striving for language not only to designate places but materially to “take place,” the very signs that revisionist attempts “to write” history work most effectively to conceal. It is to a little noted, artificially constructed and recorded scene in which such concealment is at once verbally and deictically revealed, that these prefatory remarks on the making of the referent proceed.


(1.) From the odd chronology outlined here derives the necessity—awkward for this author—of referencing some of those separately published studies at different junctures in the argument of the present work. These references to previous publications may sometimes convey the unsettling sense of a progress in regress, and it is indeed the case that briefly noting the arguments of these related studies, rather than restating them in their entirety, was a kind of mental shorthand required for the present study to progress. Still, references to these previous analyses may serve not only to indicate their direct contribution to the development of the present work, opening the angle of its own analytic movement to wider compass, but also to suggest the substantial change that contribution has already effected upon those studies themselves, altering the course of their own integration into the larger works of which they are a part.

(2.) Rousseau's seminal analysis of the role of language in “grounding” territorial appropriation, the exclusion of language from and resulting re-mystification of territorial appropriation by Carl Schmitt, and Kant's translation of Rousseau's first (negative) principle, that “the ground belongs to no one,” into a positive legal theory of the necessarily artificial constitution of any claim to external possession, including in times of war, are among the placements and displacements of language in referentially based political theory discussed in section 2 of the Introduction.

(3.) —the one being either logically impossible or entirely fictional, since nature, having no correspondence to language, can be objectively identified only by way of language (hence the insoluble problem of sufficient definition), and the other being logically transparent but essentially circular, since any referent defined only by thought would also correspond only to that definition, making the referent not a referent but yet another product of language alone (hence the made-up objects, bearing overtly nonsensical names and taking part in science fiction–like scenarios, that routinely dominate analytic models for defining the referent). I have discussed analytic theories of the referent as linguistic convention, in Lewis, Quine, and Kripke, and the logical impasses and problem of historical uncertainty that even such differing uses of convention theory to define a law of referentiality consistently reveal, in Brodsky, “The Temporality of Convention.”