Preface to the Inaugural Issue


A Journal of Comparative Literary Studies

Preface to the Inaugural Issue

Like all sites on the net, Tympanum takes place on the surface of a screen. Unlike reading a book, while taking a stroll on the net one tends to scroll. This last term seems to be taken from the ancient form of the papyrus roll which began dying out in the 1st century AD, replaced by the codex or folding book. As we approach the 21st century, its contemporary use as a term for the action that takes place on a computer screen indicates a subtle stratification of a history of media -- technology's own screen memory. Another example of this phenomenon that one might consider is the holdover of the typewriter keyboard that now finds itself attached to our computers and monitors, helped along by a mouse, a name taken from an animal that, curiously, is perhaps also thesymbol for biotechnology.

Like the transition from roll to codex, the postulated move from codex to computer screen marks a shift of media that not only takes time, but makes time.1 In a world that is said to be ever shrinking, we are becoming more and more aware that our notion and experience of time is garnered from various technologies.2 Likewise for the notion of space. For example, the expression "to be on the web" can itself be seen to mark a contemporary shift or dislocation. One doesn't "plug in" to the web as, for example, one would plug in a toaster. This seemingly innocuous move from "in" to "on" expresses a shift of current sensibility. Taking part onthe web expresses a movement more akin to surfing, riding a wave to see where it takes you. A web site thus begins by dislocating itself: it appears on the virtual surface of a screen, dividing (between) a "here" and a "there." If a web site doesn't really take (a) place, this is because the web dis-locates any simple notion of a here or a there by refusing to contain itself. What the contemporary expression "to be on the web" seems to dislocate is the very verb "to be," which, as always, indicates a particular place or space -- to be here or there. Henceforth, a "web site" can no longer be said to designate a place or a gathering. Instead, it disperses.

Regarding the choice of name for this journal, tympan or tympanum is a word that designates several objects at once. Tympan is perhaps first of all a typographical term: as a printer's term in early book production, a tympan designated "the iron frame covered with parchment on which the paper was placed." Taken as an anatomical term, the word tympanum is another term for the eardrum, the oblique stretching of tissue between the auditory canal and the middle ear that allows one to hear: to hear others, to hear music, or even to hear oneself speak. The tympanum is a partition of the ear that separates inside from outside, translating various tones and punctuations, a liminal membrane traversed by hearing others speak. In this instance, the tympanum is a tissue, a weave or webthat mediates hearing. It is by extension the term for the diaphragm of a tele-phone, that technological figure of the spatialization of the voice. As an architectural term tympanum names the pediment that sits atop the cornice or frieze of a building. And to this heterogenous list one might add that in ancient Greece a tympanum, like the stoa or colonnades, was a gathering space for the discussion of philosophy. All these meanings could be enlisted to indicate the interests of this new journal.

By its very nature, a world wide web site would be a site of a mediation of or meditation on the problematic of space and place (in short: of "site" itself), and of their dislocation. In this way the web opens the possibility for a journal concerned with the problem of a mediated or textualized hearing.

Several of the articles contained in this first issue of Tympanum share a thematic of location and of reading and hearing:

Jacques Derrida's work can be seen as a sustained engagement of the question of the other. Here he turns to a singular other, Gilles Deleuze, intimating how in one leap the event of a virtual thought -- indeed of an entire philosophy -- is actualized in a body. On November 7, 1995 the French newspaper "Liberation" published remembrances and tributes paid to Gilles Deleuze. I'll have to wander all alone was Jacques Derrida's contribution. We thank him for permitting us to publish it here in translation.

Deborah Levitt's essay on Heidegger and theatre, in its exploration of the problem of space and place implicitly touches on the very medium of the web: the perpetual dislocation of place from space. Levitt couples several of Heidegger's writings together with Artaud's on her Freiburg-Paris Express. Levitt's meditation on theory and theatre is at once incisive and innovative, and locates its opening problematic in the substitution of a metaphysics of sight by site, a move which she says opens a spatiality. In a recent issue of _Assemblages_, Sam Weber makes some remarks on the metaphysics of site that could indeed be used as a succint introduction to the problems that Levitt's essay, Heidegger and the Theatre of Truth, engages:

"If what we call "space" is, like the Platonic chora, on the one hand always already caught up in the process of making room for that determinate other of space that can be called placeor site,and if, on the other hand, this process of making room remains distinct from the particular places and sites it makes way for, then the emergence of the latter from the former will inevitably appear as a more or less violent event. Violent, because the staking out of territory and the assignment of positions and posts can never simply legitimate itself in terms of preexisting borders. It cannot do this, since there is no original order to which such a process of partition might appeal without equivocation. In placeof such an origin, there is chora: the process of partition and repartition as such,except that "as such" here is impossible to distinguish from: "as other." Such partition and repartition constitute the law, the nomos, of chora..."3

Peter Starr's The Ear of the Intellectual, a chapter from his recent book _Logics of Failed Revolt_, attends to the "ear of the intellectual" and the analytic listening that takes place in the analyst's office, described as a tragic phenomenon in Lacan's writings. Starr asks the question "what does the modern French intellectual hear (or mishear) in Lacanian theory?", aligning it with Lacan's "propensity toward the tragic". As is clear from the quote that opens the essay, Starr situates a Lacanian politics within the linguistic register, reading together the revolution of May '68 and Lacan's theory of desire.

The web seems to be an excellent medium, or a conjunction of multiple media, to publish a journal of "comparative literature" that by its convention as a discipline should traverse a thinking of borders between, as well as internal to, the national languages and literatures; particularly as the world wide web already effects a dislocation of international borders and the politics of the place (via a virtual world wide net that is neither here nor there).

Soun-gui Kim's reflections in her "About multimedia art," a letter to Jean-Luc Nancy, seem appropriate here, particularly in provisionally situating for the reader of this journal its various interests from the inherent focal point that the web embodies, namely that of multimedia:

"I don't see multimedia art as an artistic genre, rather a way of being, thinking, seeing and behaving. It's an open gesture, an indeterminate domain, a pluralistic manner of seeing, in other words, a formless mode of approach based on a diversification of sites, prospects, languages and techniques. It's the "movement of thought" or movement simple, its tracing. A Stroke of the Brush, the step. It ignores forms, distinctions, hierarchies yet has the capacity to change indefinitely and include all domains and times simultaneously. This is why I like to call it "Open media.""4

A thinking of various types of borders, and the notion of the border per se (but particularly the edge of language, and the non-linguistic which inhabits language as its support, insuring the opening of literature onto its many others: drawing, the spatial, plastic, or composite arts, architecture and film, etc.) Tympanum is a site that dislocates itself, that sets itself adrift on the net with this inaugural issue. Gathering in one place a number of interests only to disperse them again, it's not certain where it will go in the future. This it leaves open to the work being done in the various fields that we would like to publish: (t)here.

-- Peter Woodruff


1 This differential shift alters not simply the medium of writing, but also its concept. Writing becomes that concept inscribed by its own alterity. Its heterogeneous past makes the future of writing, yet to come, possible; it underwrites it so to speak. One is reminded here of I.J. Gelb's remark concerning _The Study of Writing_, namely that the aim of his book was "to lay a foundation for a full science of writing, yet to come. To the new science we could give the name 'grammatology.'" Chicago: Chicago UP 1952: 23. For an animated overview of the history of writing see Robert Fradkin's website. back

2 Another, perhaps less household, term for technology is technics. This word usually renders the German Technik. For a discussion of the pivotal place of technics in Martin Heidegger's philosophy, and its relation to emplacement or "enframing," see Deborah Levitt's contribution to this issue. back

3 "The Parallax View: Place and Space in Plato and Benjamin" _Assemblages_ 20, MIT Press: 1993: 88. back

4 "About multimedia art. (from a letter to Jean-Luc Nancy)," April 3, 1997, in "Soun-Gui Kim," Editions Sock-Jon 1997: 87. back