A Theatre of Others

Simon Critchley, Memory Theatre

Fitzcarraldo Editions, 72pp, £9.99, ISBN 9780992974718

reviewed by Dominic Jaeckle

The ‘history’ of writing, Martin Heidegger would claim in his late study on Parmenidean thought, is one of the main reasons for the increasing destruction of the word: ‘(t)he typewriter tears the word itself from something “typed.” […] Mechanical writing provides this “advantage,” that it conceals the handwriting and thereby the character. The typewriter makes everyone look the same.’ The problems surrounding this inculcation of technology within a reading of a unanimist poetics are those foregrounded, for better or for worse, in Simon Critchley’s latest project, Memory Theatre, a study of ‘decline’ from Gutenberg onwards – a text balanced between memoir, fiction and essayistic character. The genres bleed in this instance, and in so doing seem to provide an aesthetics of ambiguity that balances perfectly with what appears to be the work’s implicit message, circumnavigating the intellectual divide between the external authority of event and action, and a life of the mind.

But if publicity is haunted by this kind of resolute and death-driven simpatico, privacy hallmarks the difference: it’s outward expression that is at fault for Critchley. If we are to accept Kenneth Goldsmith’s gambit, that the writer of the 21st century is an ‘identificative’ role only unique and various insofar as its accountability to a curatorial patterning hand – to the structuring and re-structuring, the arrangements and rearrangements of a pre-existent and predetermined pool of information and language – the fiction writer’s predicament is realised as one balanced between retrospect and speculation. Between the pages, we circumnavigate the past and, inadvertently, perhaps, invent a future in a vainglorious effort to reconcile some sense of a presentism, of a persistent relevance through created means, that in someway never gives in to the strict rigidity of print and the culture of publication. The performance of this conceit is, perhaps, the one most predominant across the boards of Critchley’s Theatre.

As a reader, I am uninterested in modes of classification; critics appear preoccupied with questions as to whether this book holds its charge as theory, as memoir, as fiction or as some standing hybridisation of the three. As the adjectival ‘poetic’ – or an echo of the Nietzchean supposition that philosophy and autobiography form, in some strange way, a kind of double-bed for a latent and tired culture of personality. Memory Theatre emerges in a culture defined by declaration – it meets its audience amidst calls that the novel is dead, that we are mechanising memory, that we are weaponising personality; above all, that we are being watched. This view of art’s function as an observatory system is, however, self-reflexive. Surveillance, for Critchley, is kitsch – it is a thing matched on its own ground with a delineated self-surveillance. As he would suggest (prefacing his doctrinal rereading of Hamlet) this reflexivity incurs a mirror. This mimesis is not, however, a thing congruent with any reflected truism, but better set as a refracted self-invention. We need nothing but limp qualifiers, fragments of our own recollections, to begin universalising the dimensions that underpin either the theoretical or narratological skeins at play here – we’re all writers, and all invested in this kind of auto-portraiture – this ‘perpetuum mobile’, in Critchley’s dictum. As such, Heidegger’s ‘history’ of writing, damned by some Cratylic memory machine, is not only a predicament omnipresent within literary cultures, but is a thing we have taken on; the theatricality and literariness of our own personal cosmogonies insures we in turn fall foul of literature’s own complaints. We struggle with the concrete. Critchley’s significant rejoinder is then aimed towards Barthesean cliché: towards the ever-present punchline, as, after it all, the author didn’t die.

A culture of personality is then the thing here, and if, as prompted by ‘a few pages from Ulysses,’ the literature of the early 20th century was haunted by negotiations of time; here, at the onset of the 21st, it is memory that enacts the fundamental difficulty. The text rolls out, proposing significant questions as to the nature of structure – we crawl through the works of Michel Haar, and in so doing come across what seems to be a portrait of Critchley himself. This seems to be one of Critchley’s underwritten principles of a notion of scholarship; ‘we are’, to protract one of his observations from the particular to the universal, ‘narcissistic to the end.’ However, the picture composed decomposes – charted beautifully as Liam Gillick’s illustrations demonstrate a building literally deconstructed, floor-by-floor, as though contributing to a phenakistoscopic wheel. The problem is with fixity – the issue that gives the text both its sense of melancholy, and awards it its successes. Critchley, in reference here to Hegel, expurgates his own paean to movement:

The brilliance of Hegel’s insight was not to reduce memory to a kind of dull recitation of the past, but to create something permanently moving. A wheel that turns, returns, and turns again. […] Memory is repetition. Sure. But it is repetition with a difference. It is not recitation. It is repetition that creates a felt variation in the way things appear. Repetition is what makes possible novelty. […] Memory needs be imagination.

So, in our own ‘rotating eternities’ we self-generate, we self-alter, but we drift so slowly that change seems be nothing but re-enactment. Critchley’s notion is somewhat Deleuzian in his view of difference and continuity within the structure of repetition, but amidst all of his exigent academicism and self-referentiality a striking predicament emerges. As we consider the shape of Critchley’s memory theatre, in an epoch struck by encyclopaedism and never-ending further contributions to the slagheaps that litter an otherwise ‘flat landscape’ of culture, we realise the impossibilities prevalent in trying to picture our own. Our theatres are ‘theatres of death’ – they close when we shut down. It seems nigh on impossible to reconcile our moving impressions with the static presentation of an idea. Critchley’s final resolve is then a sombre one: the author is not dead; the author is constantly dying. The book is, then, like a forever stamp on a dead letter – that we write our selves in the ledger, or indeed that we write at all, is the thing of value – to repeat ourselves and move forwards.
Dominic Jaeckle is a writer and academic based in London.