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Palimpsests – Writing Over Marx

Within the humanities, palimpsests have become a popular metaphor for describing the movements of history. The present rewrites the past imperfectly with the tools at hand, while the past survives in traces, fragments–the evanescences that haunt us. It’s not original for me to use it as a title for this documentary essay, but it is relevant, since writing over history was precisely the practice Marx was engaged in. Marx’s meta-narrative of world history as class struggle was a writing over of history; history was not simply the particulars of a time and place, but the universal movement of a great predestined struggle between oppressor and oppressed. His advocacy for the idea that class emerged from the peacefully egalitarian state of nature was a writing over–really an adaptation–of the Christian myth of the idyllic garden world of Adam and Eve. Marx sought an apocalypse of the masses–to overcome oppression, overthrow the existing social order, overcast the sky with the fires of revolution.

Lest you accuse me of applying the preposition meaninglessly, however, let me defend my generalization by making an even broader one: every theorist in every discipline in every place is trying to write above their particulars. One of the big Frenchies–Derrida, Foucault, Levi-Strauss, Lefebvre–I can’t remember which one, said that theory precedes fact, that once theorizing begins, all facts become dubious. It’s a sexy idea, really sleek and attractive, until the facts kick you in the teeth. I’m not saying the idea’s completely without merit. Certainly we need a context for all this information, but the ordering reveals a deep bias. Theory does not simply precede fact. Facts are not a handmaid. Theory is fact’s tortured lover. Each needs the other. Theory cannot live without fact, and fact cannot move without theory.

What does this have to do with Marx and my documentary? Theory writes over everyone–usually women, the poor, the slight, the untouchables–even when it seeks to redeem them, because theorizing, which is always the practice of writing, is violent. By necessity it truncates the facts of bodies–facts from the Latin facere, “to do.” Indeed, the doing of bodies, which is their living, can never survive the brutalities of writing, of theorizing. So I chose to write over my own doing, to use Marx to write myself, the way Marx used history to write himself. My narcissism becomes a tool to combat itself, much the way a koan is used to confound the ego.

Importantly, I do not believe this technique is the only way to deal with theoretical violence. There are many ways to confound the magisterial survey of the theorizing monkey. All writing that self-consciously modulates its power can properly attend the body–even if imperfectly.

4 Responses to Palimpsests – Writing Over Marx

  1. Alexj says:

    I wonder if all (theory) writing need be brutal; I think about feminist theories of the body. I think if praxis as less a one or the other/less a covering over, then a dialectic where both theory and practice produce yet something else.

  2. Ned says:

    In the past you have expressed a disdain for Derrida and the combat boot Derridians of the nineties. I, however, cannot but think of Derrida’s term différance and his emphasis on reading the spaces and silences of texts when I watch your video. It seems to me this is in a way what this video is doing.

    • C. Travis Webb says:

      Ned, really, really frustrating! I wrote a very long detailed response to your comment that was just swallowed whole by some fiber-optic hydra. Argh! Anyway, what I basically said was this… 1) Thanks for the comment. 2) “Disdain” is never what I’m groping for when I write. 3) I have a tremendous amount of respect for Derrida’s work–though I don’t agree with his placing writing before speech. 4) I don’t like methods (deconstruction), but prefer particular readings, because humanistic theories, unlike physical theories, have no hope of falsifiability and are therefore tautological. 5) I’m for essays over methods and books over theories, just as I’m for people over countries and individuals over groups. 6) Again, thanks for taking the time to respond. 7) Fuck the digital infirmities that rob us of our time and work (okay, that last one wasn’t in the original response; I’m just really annoyed.)

  3. […] idea for this “paper” grew out of my video work (here and here) in the seminar with Alex Juhasz. Specifically, in her questions regarding some of the assertions I […]

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