I have a few posts I want to write, and I've been walking around with them in my head for the past month. One of them relates to the way I've come to read, specifically, the way I move from book to book, author to author and how this differs so much from the ways I was professionally trained to read. The second is about Looking as a mode of being, and how it relates to my ideas on coping. The third, and the one I'll try to write just now, is on the existence of the negative in language. Interestingly, and not at all surprisingly, I can get to any of these by means of Luke's most recent post on Perec.
Perec includes a section in Species of Spaces that he entitles “A Space Without a Use”, in which he tries to conceive of a room that is not simply unused, but that is “absolutely and intentionally useless,” a “functionless space” that “would serve for nothing, relate to nothing.” Of course, nothing can be useless in this sense, since even an empty room or a corner serves a structural or architectural function, and Perec concludes that is “impossible to follow this idea through to the end,” because language itself is “unsuited to describing this nothing, this void.” The problem, he implies, is that a space cannot be useless once it has become the subject of language, and that it is impossible to conceive of a space that is beyond language, because conception requires language. The only space that would truly be without a use, therefore, would be the one that I do not know and therefore do not subject to language.
This instantly took me back to something I read while a student -- Kenneth Burke's The Rhetoric of Religion: Studies in Logology. Here's a bit from his discussion of the Negative Analogy:
The paradox of the negative, then, is simply this: Quite as the word ‘tree’ is verbal and the thing tree is non-verbal, so all words for the non-verbal must, by the very nature of the case, discuss the realm of the non-verbal in terms of_ what it is not_. Hence, to use words properly, we must spontaneously have a feeling for the principle of the negative.
He then gives a few examples:
...you can get the point by stopping to realize that you can go forever saying what a thing is not. This thing I pick up positively is a book. It is not an apple, not an elephant, not a railway train, etc.
...if I am asked whether the thermometer reads 37 degrees, or 38 degrees, or 42 degrees, etc. Whatever the thermometer positively reads other than 37 degrees, I can say, 'It is not 37 degrees.' Such considerations cause us to realize that the negative is a peculiarly linguistic invention, not a 'fact' of nature, but a function of a symbol-system, as intrinsically symbolic as the square root of minus one.
The useless room cannot be, can only be named. And in naming, it can never be arrived at, but only framed in terms of negatives, and never in positives that would give us access to its space. I can show you a table, but only tell you that there is not a table in the room.
What I find interesting about the "useless room" is that its existence is dependent on my not conceiving it, on my not naming it, or knowing about it. And yet, even more importantly, I believe that the room only becomes useless as such upon my discovery of it. It is not created by me, but discovered by me. Even though "[t]here is a sort of loss in this...the loss of something that I did not know I had until it had gone...[the loss of] its waiting to be discovered," I think a more powerful thing happens in this discovery: I learn first hand of the importance of looking for what is not yet discovered.
What interests me about the finding of the useless room is not so much the room, or its loss, but the movement that puts one in the path of discovery, what I call Looking, and a subject too long and important for me to take up badly now.