Still: 'No Man's Land' or Never Suspend the Question




phenomenology, the Outside, Beckett

How to Cite

Dewsbury, J.-D. (2009). Still: ’No Man’s Land’ or Never Suspend the Question. M/C Journal, 12(1).
Vol. 12 No. 1 (2009): still
Published 2009-03-04

 “Say a body. Where none. No mind. Where none. That at least. A place. Where none. For the body. To be in. Move in. Out of. Back into. No out. No back. Only in. Stay in. On in. Still” (Beckett, Short Fiction 471). 

1. Introduction – Wherefore to ‘still’?

HIRST: As it is?

SPOONER: As it is, yes please, absolutely as it is (Pinter, 1971-1981 77). 

These first lines of Harold Pinter’s play No Man’s Land are indeed the first lines: they were the first lines that came to Pinter, existing as the spark that drove the play into being. Pinter overhead the words ‘As it is’ whilst in a taxi cab and was struck by their poetry and utter uncertainty. That was it. In the play, they are referring to having a scotch – i.e. as it is, without ice. Here, they refer to the ‘still’ – the incessant constitutive moment of being in the world ‘as it is’. In this short paper I want to essay the phenomenon of ‘still’ as it is; as in there is ‘still’, and as in the ‘there is’ is the ‘still’ between presencing and absencing (as in No Man’s Land: two bodies in a room, a question, and a moment of comprehension). Three points need to be outlined from this desire to essay the phenomenon of ‘still’. First, it should be remembered and noted that to essay is to weigh something up in thought. Second, that ‘still’ is to be considered as a phenomena, both material and immaterial, and not as a concept or state, and where our endeavour with phenomenology here is understood as a concern with imagining ‘a body’ and ‘a place’ where there is neither – in this I want to think the vital and the vulnerable in non-oppositional terms “to work against conventional binaries such as stasis–movement, representation–practice (or the non-representational), textual–non-textual, and immaterial–material” (Merrimen et al 193). Third, that I was struck, in the call for papers for this issue of the Journal of Media and Culture, by the invocation of ‘still’ over that of ‘stillness’, or rather the persistent use of ‘still’ in the call focussing attention on ‘still’ as a noun or thing rather than as an adjective or verb.  

This exploration of being through the essaying of ‘still’ as a phenomenon will be exampled in the work of Samuel Beckett and Pinter and thought through in the philosophical and literary thought of the outside of Maurice Blanchot. Why Beckett? Beckett because he precisely and with distilled measure, exactitude and courage asks the question of being through the vain attempt to stage what remains when everything superfluous is taken away (Knowlson 463): what remains may well be the ‘still’ although this remainder is constitutive of presencing and not a relic or archive or dead space. Why Pinter? Pinter because, through restoring “theatre to its basic elements - an enclosed space and unpredictable dialogue” (Engdaht), he staged a certain vision of our life on earth which pulls on the very logic and power of silence in communication: this logic is that of ‘still’ – saying something while doing nothing; movement where stillness is perceived. Why Blanchot? Blanchot because he understood and gave expression to the fact that that which comes to be written, the work, will not succeed in communicating the experience that drives the writing and that as such the written work unworks the desire that brought it into being (see Smock 4). This ‘unworking’, this putting into question, is the ‘still’.

                                                                           *  *  * 

Apart from any other consideration, we are faced with the immense difficulty, if not the impossibility, of verifying the past. I don’t mean merely years ago, but yesterday, this morning. What took place, what was the nature of what took place, what happened? If one can speak of the difficulty of knowing what in fact took place yesterday, one can treat the present in the same way. We won’t know until tomorrow or in six months’ time, and we won’t know then, we’ll have forgotten, or our imagination will have attributed quite false characteristics to today. A moment is sucked away and distorted, often even at the time of its birth. We will all interpret a common experience quite differently, though we prefer to subscribe to the view that there’s a shared common ground, a known ground. I think there’s a shared common ground all right, but that it is more like a quicksand (Pinter, Voices 22). 

The ‘still’: treating the present in the same manner as the difficulty of knowing the past; seeing the present as being sucked away and distorted at its inception; taking knowing and the constitution of being as grounded on quicksand. At stake then is the work that revolves around the conceptualizations and empirical descriptions of the viscerally engraved being-there and the practical and social formations of embodiment that follow. I am concerned with the ways in which a performative re-emphasizing of practice and materiality has overlooked the central point of what ‘being-there’ means. Which is to say that what ‘being-there’ means has already been assumed in the exciting, extensive and particular engagements which concern themselves more with the different modes of being-there (walking, sitting, sleeping), the different potentialities of onto-technical connections connecting (to) the world (new image technologies, molecular stimulants, practised affecting words), and the various subjectivities produced in the subsequent placements being considered and being made in such connections whether materially or immaterially (imaginary) real (attentive, bored, thoughtful, exhausted). Such engagements do far more than this paper aims for, but what I want for this paper is for it to be a pause in itself, a provocation that takes a step back.

What might this step back entail?  Let’s start by pivoting off from a phrase that addresses the singular being-there of any performative material moment and that is “the event of corporeal exposure” alluded to by Paul Harrison in his paper ‘Corporeal Remains’ (432). Key to the question of ‘still’ or ‘stillness’ is the tension between thinking the body, embodiment and a sense of life that forms the social when what we are talking about or around is ‘a body. Where none. … A place. Where none’. What briefly do I mean by this? First, what can be said about the presencing of the body? Harrison, following Emmanuel Levinas, both inherits and withdraws from Martin Heidegger’s phenomenology primarily because, and this is what we want to move away from, the key concept of Dasein both covers up the sensible and vulnerable body in being discerned as a disembodied subjectivity and is too concerned forthwith with a sense of comprehension in a teleological economy of intent(ion) (429-430). Second, what is a stake in the ephemeral presence of place? Harrison signals that the eventhood of corporeal existence exists within a “specific relation between interior and exterior”, namely that of “the ‘sudden address from elsewhere’” (436). The Beckettian non-place can be read as that specific relation of the exterior to the interior, of the outside being part of that which brings the sense of self into being. In summary, these two points question the arguments raised by Harrison: ‘What is encountering'? if it isn’t quite the body as nominally thought. And ‘What is encountering?’ if such encountering is a radical asymmetrical address which nonetheless gives some orientation (placement) of comprehension for and of ourselves? 

2. What is encountering? Never present still: ‘Say a body. Where none.’

Literature is that experience through which the consciousness discovers its being in its inability to lose consciousness, in the movement whereby it disappears, as it tears itself away from the meticulousness of an I, it is re-created beyond consciousness as an impersonal spontaneity (Blanchot, Fire 331-332). 

I have used the textual extracts from literature and theatre because they present that constitutive and continual tearing away from consciousness (that sense that one is present, embodied, but always in the process of finding meaning or one’s place outside of one’s body). The ‘still’ I want to depict is then the incessant still point of presencing, the moment of disappearance and re-creation: take this passage in Blanchot’s Thomas the Obscure where the eye of the protagonist, Thomas, becomes useless for seeing in the normal way. Read this as a moment where the body doesn’t just function and gain definition within an economy of what we already know it can do, but that it places us and displaces us at the same time towards something more constitutive, indeterminate and existential because it is neither entirely animate flesh nor inanimate corpse but also the traced difference of the past and the differing affirmation of the future:

Not only did this eye which saw nothing apprehend something, it apprehended the cause of its vision. It saw as object that which prevented it from seeing. Its own glance entered into it as an image, just when this glance seemed the death of all image (Blanchot, Reader 60). 

This is the ‘dark gaze’ that Kevin Hart unveils in his excellent book The Dark Gaze: Maurice Blanchot and the Sacred, which he defines as: “the vision of the artist who sees being as image, already separated from the phenomenal world and yet not belonging to a separate order of being” (12). Again this quivering and incessant becoming of ‘a body where none and a place where none’ pushes us towards the openness and exposure of the ‘stilling’ experience of a ‘loss of knowledge’, a lack of comprehension and yet an immediate need for orientation. The ‘still’, shown for Blanchot in the space of literature, distinguishes “itself from the struggle of which it is the dazzling expression … and if it is an answer, the answer to the destiny of the man that calls himself into question, then it is an answer that does not suspend the question” (Blanchot, Fire 343).Thus the phenomenological hegemony that produces “a certain structuring and logos of orientation within the very grammar geographers use to frame spatial experience” (Romanillos 795) is questioned and fractured in the incessant exposure of being by an ever inaccessible outside in which we ironically access ourselves – in other words, find out who or what we are. This is indeed a performance of coherence in always already deconstructing world (Rose). 

So for me the question of ‘still’ is a question that opens our thought up to the very way in which we think the human, and how we then think the subject in the social in a much more existential and embodied manner. The concern here is less with the biology of this disposition (although I think ultimately such insights need to go in lockstep with the ones I wish to address here) than its ontological constitution. In that sense I am questioning our micro and immediate place-making embodiment and this tasks us to think this embodiment and phenomenological disposition not in a landscape (more broadly or because this concept has become too broad) but in-place. The argument here operates a post-phenomenological and post-humanist bent in arguing for this ‘–place’ to be the neutral ‘there is’ of worlding, and the ‘in-’ to be the always exposed body. One can understand this as the absolute separation of self or other in terms of a non-dialectical account of intersubjectivity (see Critchley 18). In turning to Blanchot the want of the still, “where being ceaselessly perpetuates itself as nothingness” (Blanchot, Space 243), is in ‘showing/forcing us to think’ the strangeness, openness and finitudinal terror of this non-dialectical (non-relational) interhuman relation without the affirmations Levinas makes of an alterity to be understood ethically in some metaphysical sense and in an interpretation of that non-relation as ultimately theological (Critchley 19). What encounters is then the indeterminate, finite and exposed body. 

3. What is encountering? The topography of still: ‘A place. Where none’.

One of the autobiographical images for Beckett was of an old man holding a child’s hand walking down a country road. But what does this say of being? Embodied being and being-there respectively act as sensation and orientation. The touch of another’s hand is equally a touch of minimal comprehension that acts as a momentary placement. But who is guiding who? Who is pre-occupying and giving occupation to whom? Or take Pinter and the end of No Man’s Land: two men centred in a room one hoping to be employed by the other in order to employ the other back into the ‘land of the living’ rather than wait for death. Are they reflections of the same person, an internal battle to will one’s life to live, or rather to move one’s living fleshy being to an occupation (of place or as a mode by which one opens oneself up to the surroundings in which you literally find oneself – to become occupied by something there and to comprehend in doing so). Either way, is that all there is? Is this how it is? Do we just accept ‘life’ as it is? Or does ‘life’ always move us?

HIRST: There is nothing there.
SPOONER: No. You are in no man’s land. Which never moves, which never changes, which never grows older, but which remains forever, icy and silent. 
HIRST: I’ll drink to that (Pinter, Complete Works 157). 

Disingenuously, taking Pinter at face value here, ‘no man’s land’ is impossible for us, it is literally a land within which no human can be: can you imagine a place where nothing moves, never changes, never ages, but remains forever? Of course you can: we can imagine such a place. The ‘still’ can be made tangible in artistic expressions partly because they provide a means of both communicating that of which we cannot speak and showing the communication of silence when we do not speak. So in the literary spaces of Beckett, Blanchot, and Pinter, “literature as experience is valuable not so much for what it tells us about literature but for what it reveals about experience” (Hart 139-140). So what we have is a communication that reveals but doesn’t define, and that therefore questions the orientation and certainty of subject positions: 

The literary renderings of certain landscapes, such as those presentations of spatialities outside-the-subject, of the anonymous there is of spaces, contribute to a dismantling and erasure of the phenomenological subject (Romanillos 797). 

So what I think thinking through ‘still’ can do is bring us to think the ‘neutral presence of life itself’ and thus solicit from us a non-oppositional accounting of vitalism and passivity. “Blanchot asked me: why not pursue my inner experience as if I were the last man?” – for Bataille the answer became a dying from inside without witness, “an impossible moment of paralysis” (Boldt-Irons 3); but for Blanchot it became a “glimpse into ‘the interminable, the incessant’” (ibid) from outside the dying. In other words we, as in humans that comprehend, are also what we are from outside our corporeal being, be that active or passively engaged.  

But let’s not forget that the outside is as much about actual lived matter and materialized worlds. Whilst what enables us to instil a place in the immaterial flow of absent-presencing or present-absencing is our visceral embodied placement, it is not the body per se but its capacity that enables us to relate or encounter that which is non-relational and that which disrupts our sense of being in place. Herein all sorts of matter (air, earth, water, fire) encounter us and “act as a lure for feeling” (Stengers; after Anderson and Wylie). Pursuing the exposing nature of matter under the notion of ‘interrogation’ Anderson and Wylie site the sensible world as an interrogative agent itself. Wylie’s post-phenomenological folding of the seer and seen, the material and the sensible (2006), is rendered further here in the materialization of Levinas’ call to respond in Lingis’ worlding imperative of “obedience in sensibility” (5) where the materialization is not just the face of the Other that calls but matter itself. It is not just about living, quivering flesh then because “the flesh is a process, not a ‘substance’, in the sense of something which is simply there” (Anderson and Wylie 7). And it is here that I think the ontological accounting of ‘still’ I want to install intervenes: for it is not that there is ever a ‘simply there’ but always a ‘there is’. And this ‘there is’ is not necessarily of sensuality or sensibility, nor is it something vitally felt in one form or another. Rather it persists and insists as a neutral, incessant, interminable presencing that questions us into being: ‘what are we doing here?’ Some form of minimal comprehension must ensue even if it is only ephemeral or only enough to ‘go on’ for a bit more. 

I can’t go on, you must go on, I’ll go on, you must say words, as long as there are any, until they find me, until they say me, strange pain (Beckett, Unnameable 414). 

In a sense the question creates the questioner: all sorts of imperatives make us appear. But my point is that they are both of corporeal sensibility, felt pain or pleasure a la Lingis, and minimal comprehension of ontological placement, namely (as shown here) words as they say us, never ours and never finished. The task of reading such stuttering yet formative words is the question ‘still’ presents to social scientific explanation of being bodies in social formations. There is something unreal about the idea of stillness and the assertion that ‘still’ exists as a phenomenon and this unreality rests with the idea that ‘still’ presents both a principle of action and the incapacity to act (see Bissell for exemplary empirics on and theoretical insights into the relational constitution of activity and inactivity) – ‘I can’t go on, you must go on’. 

There is then a frustrated entitlement of being pre-occupied in space where we gain occupation not in equipmental activity but in the ontological attunement that makes us stall in fascination as a moment of comprehension. Such attunements are constitutive of being and as such are everywhere. They are however more readily seized upon as graspable in those moments of withdrawal from history, those moments that we don’t include when we bio-graph who we are to others, those ‘dull’ moments of pause, quiet, listlessness and apathy. But it is in these moments where, corporeally speaking, a suspension or dampening of sensibility heightens our awareness to perceive our being-there, and thus where we notice our coming to be inbetween heartbeat and thought. Such moments permanently wallpaper our world and as such provide room for perceiving that shadow mode of ‘stillness’ that “produces a strange insectlike buzzing in the margins” (Blanchot, Fire 333). Encountering is then the minimal sense of going on in the face of the questions asked of the body.

Let us change the subject. For the last time (Pinter, Dramatic Works 149).   

Conclusion: ‘For the body. To be in. Move in. Out of. Back into. No out.’

Thinking on ‘still’ seems to be a further turn away from vitalism, but such thinking acts as a fear (or a pause and therefore a demand to recognize) that what frightens us, what stills us, is the end of the end, the impossibility of dying (Blanchot, Fire 337): why are we here? But it is this fright that enlivens us both corporeally, in existing as beings, and meaningfully, in our ever ongoing encounter with the ‘there is’ that enables our sense of orientation, towards being something that can say/feel ‘there’.

A human being is always on the way toward itself, in becoming, thwarted, thrown-into a situation, primordially ‘‘passive,’’ receptive, attuned, exposed …; far from limiting him, this exposure is the very ground of the emergence of a universe of meaning, of the ‘‘worldliness’’ of man (Žižek 273). 

The ‘still’ therefore names “the ‘site’ in which the event of Being occurs” (Calarco 34). It comes about from “glimpsing the abyss opened up by the recognition of the perspectival character of human knowledge and the concomitant awareness of … [its] limits” (Calarco 41) – that yes we are death-subjected beings and therefore corporeal and finite. And as such it fashions “a fascination for something ‘outside’ or other than the human” (Calarco 43) – that we are not alone in the world, and the world itself brings us into being. This counterpointing between body and place, sensation and meaning, exists at the very heart of what we call human: namely that we are tasked to know how to go on at the limits of what we know because to go on is the imperative of world.

This essay has been a pause then on the circumflexion of ‘still’. If Levinas is right in suggesting that Blanchot overcomes Heidegger’s philosophy of the neuter (Levinas 298) it is because it is not just that we (Dasein) question the ontological from the ontic in which we are thrown but that also the ontological (the outside that ‘stills’ us) questions us:

What haunts us is something inaccessible from which we cannot extricate ourselves. It is that which cannot be found and therefore cannot be avoided (Blanchot, Space 259). Thus, as Hart writes, we are transfixed “and risk standing where our ‘here’ will crumble into ‘nowhere’ (150).

Neither just vital nor vulnerable, it is about the quick of meaning in the topography of finitude. The resultant non-ontological ethics that comes from this is voiced from an unsuspecting direction in a text written by Jacques Derrida to be read at his funeral. On 12th October 2004 Derrida’s son Pierre gave it oration: “Always prefer life and never cease affirming survival” (Derrida, quoted in Hill 7). 

Estragon: ‘I can’t go on like this’

Vladimir: ‘That’s what you think’ (Beckett, Complete Works 87-88). 


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Author Biography

John-David Dewsbury, University of Bristol

Senior Lecturer in Human Geography at the School of Geographical Sciences.