This essay utilizes Beckett’s fictional and critical explorations of attention, distraction and drift to reflect on the ways in which, stripped of the conventions of cultural production, walking, thinking and artistic endeavor might be reimagined outside the normative scripts of biopolitics. Centralized and teleological forms give way to rhizomatic instantiations of the same in a process pertaining to all three registers at once (walking, thinking and writing). The result is the formation of a gesture that though suggestive of resistance cannot be viewed as such, in so far as it eschews negation. The paper traces a movement from the dialectical oscillation of attention and distraction in Proust to Beckett’s fashioning of an alternative that finds expression not only in the abstractions of thought and language but also in embodied experience. This alternative will be termed “drift,” a label denoting neither principle nor concept, but a mode of being that anticipates our attempts to think the human in the sensory-digital present. Beckett’s experiments allow us to reconsider forms of knowledge, understanding and conditioning. No less significant is his lesson on how we might do so without becoming embroiled in the dialectics of resistance and compliance.
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1 Habit is a philosophically complex term and can potentially and rather performatively distract from the paper’s focus on attention, distraction and the undoing of the dialectic that binds them. The passing references to the term here are significant only insofar as they are relevant for the testing of culturally sanctioned modes of attention. To briefly reference more sustained engagements with habit, Ulrika Maude utilizes Félix Ravaisson’s definition of habit as a method to unpack its shifting significance in Beckett’s work. She concludes that “Although Beckett perhaps begins his publishing life with a Bergsonian take on habit as “the ballast that chains the dog to its vomit”, something that impedes knowledge and distracts us from experience, …. in Beckett’s late work, habit seems to constitute a tenuous, fraught, and primitive ontology, which is the most, perhaps, that we can hope for” (“The Laws of Habit” 820). Laura Salisbury’s Samuel Beckett: Laughing Matters, Comic Timing turns to “the semi-automatic, the half-intentional”, the “habitual affects that tread the threshold of what can securely be brought into the conscious awareness” (217). My paper participates in the attempt to trace an emerging ontology in Beckett’s work, but does so by following the instantiations of habit only insofar as they are socially and culturally determined and regulated. Work on this paper was supported by the Israel Science Foundation grant “Pioneering the Slow” 468/17. 2 “This life … is one of these horizontal lives, without a peak, all outstretched, a phenomenon of movement, without possibility of speeding up or slowing down, launched, without inauguration, by the accident of birth, ceased, without conclusion, by the accident of death.” The translation used throughout is Michael Zeleny’s. https://larvatus.livejournal.com/68681.html Accessed 24th April 2019. My thanks to Paul Fagan for the
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