Paul North

Thomas Schestag: Die unbewältigte Sprache: Hannah Arendts Theorie der Dichtung
Besprechung in der GERMAN QUARTERLY BOOK REVIEWS, Spring 2008

Thomas Schestag’s book, Die unbewältigte Sprache: Hannah Arendts Theorie der Dichtung, which belongs among the best deconstructive analyses of the past twenty years, examines the limits of Arendt’s poetics. It does not contest the relationship between her political theory and her understanding of poetry but it challenges some of her assumptions. Schestag takes Arendt to task for the theory of language that seems to underlie this relationship.

A political sphere founded on a «word» conceived as an enduring «thing» (this argument is outlined in Ch. 23 of Gottlieb’s anthology) is complicated by the fact that the word «word» must first itself be given a foundation. For Schestag, this self-referential paradox is one of several unacknowledged «Risse» that run through Arendt’s quasi-mythical notion of «word» (43). As a durable «thing,» the Arendtian poetic word breaks the cycle of labor and entertainment in which language has a purely instrumental function. And yet, according to Schestag, words themselves are already broken. To imagine that word-things simply endure as they are ignores at least two ways in which words are what they are not, and as such carry a very different political potential. Even when it forms the basis for truly political speech, a poetic word—and every word for that matter—has already undergone and will continue to undergo displacements of meaning and reference—always also referring, therefore, to an «unbewältigte Vergangenheit» (22). Each word is always already not what it is or says insofar as it transports an ineradicable «no longer » within it. Secondly, insofar as they are signs, words signify the very loss of signifieds; for signs are constituted by distance and death. In order to consider a word a durable «thing,» these negative dimensions of the logos—the philological and the semiological—have to be disregarded.

To demonstrate a tendency toward this disregard in Arendt’s writings, Schestag locates another kind of word, a word against the word (a «Gegenwort»), in texts from which she draws her understanding of language (75). While she finds in Thucydides, for instance, a formula for the perfect correspondence between word and deed, Schestag finds, in Pericles’s funeral oration, a non-signifying remainder—the graves of the dead Athenians—that cannot be acted upon. Pericles’s words come to signify through the kian palace in Odyssey 8 a perfect correspondence between poetic language and memory, Schestag finds a forgetful remainder, emblematized in Odysseus’s tears, that does not bring the past forward, but instead inarticulably reminds us of its passing. The hero’s weeping carries into the center of the Homeric poem of «return» the failure of Odysseus’s «original» deeds to return in Demodokos’s song (59).

On the use of poetic language for politics, who has the final word? Both imagine poetry political in that it is not immediately consumable, and yet the sources they give for words’ resistance to consumption appear irreconcilable. Arendt presents an obdurate word-thing that breaks cycles of exchange and consumption by enduring as it is. Schestag presents a constitutively broken word that produces transience, difference, and transformation within seemingly permanent things. To decide between the two accounts, one would have to choose between a history in which «things» endure in self- identical epochs, and a history that never fully opens any epoch since it never closes its negotiations with the past. One thing is certain: Schestag’s book reminds us of the need to make such a decision.

Paul North (New York University)

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