& A G A I N S T
The subversion of death through speech-craft is a long and storied enterprise, which Foucault manages to treat in its essential and historical aspects at the same time: "Since the day that death was first spoken up to by way of detaining and delaying it, something has been born, a murmur which redoubles and retells itself without end..." To this event he assigns nothing like a historical date, saying only that it didn't come after the invention of writing. But if writing's advent produced much of an alteration in language's struggle against death, Foucault doesn't dwell on it. Nor does the continued development of writing and its affiliated technologies appear to disturb the work of language's mission in any fundamental way--at least not over the long period stretching from Homer (~750 BCE) to the madness of Holderlin (1802). During that time, "speaking so as not to die had a meaning now alien to us." This lapsed meaning consisted in the work of language's status as a monument to itself and its individualized pretensions to cheating death: "To speak of heroes or as a hero, to desire to construct something like a work, to speak so that others speak of it to infinity, to speak for 'glory,' was indeed to move vers et contre this death maintained by language; to speak as a sacred orator warning of death, to threaten men with this end beyond any possible glory, was also to disarm death and promise immortality."

But not so in our day? Why not? It seems that once the work of language is institutionalized in a certain way--that is, as "literature"--it is no longer able to sustain the pretense that its struggle against death is singly joined, and must acknowledge its place within a vast and teeming field of discourse. The cumulative murmur of all the cries lifted against death mounts from a "disquieting noise" to an "inevitable and swelling noise" to a noise that is "unbounded and deafening" and no longer possible to ignore. From that point on the only remaining strategy is to "speak for as long and as loudly as this indefinite and deafening noise--longer and more loudly so that in mixing our voices with it we might succeed--if not in silencing and mastering it--in modulating its futility into the endless murmuring we call literature. From this moment, a work whose only meaning resides in its being a self-enclosed expression of its glory is no longer possible."

Why Foucault stops short of attributing this transformation to the mass market made possible by technologies of mechanical reproduction is unclear to me. It's clearly on his mind where he brings up the strange case of Coelina, or The Child of Mystery, a French novel of terror which "sold 1.2 million copies from its publication in 1798 to the Restoration. This means that every person who knew how to read had read Coelina... It was a book without a future, without a fringe exposed to deaf ears, since almost instantaneously and in a single movement it was able to achieve its goal. Historical conditions were necessary to foster this new phenomenon (as far as I know it has never been repeated)." But "Language to Infinity" is more concerned with the effects of this historical moment of saturation than its causes.


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