Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Ann Smock reviews Irving Goh’s The Reject

Irving Goh. The Reject: Community, Politics, and Religion after the  Subject. New York: Fordham University Press, 2015. 384 pp. Hardcover $95. Paperback $28.

Reviewed by Ann Smock

In this ambitious and spirited book Irving Goh traverses a great swath of recent French thought. One gathers right away that of all the  writers he examines, Jean-Luc Nancy is  the one whose ideas, but also whose tones, colors, accents have mattered the most to him.  His whole book is the answer he proposes to Nancy's question, posed as a challenge some 25 years ago, "Who comes after the subject?"[1] Goh's response today: the reject.

It is, on the face of it, a marvelous response. I doubt I am alone in my spontaneous  sympathy for the thought of not measuring up or making the grade, given the deadly culture of  goals and achievements which is currently ours, with all its official boosters and administrators, so determined, with their tests and evaluations, that everyone and everything should prove itself. (Of course, it could be that my own inclination toward incompetence pushes me more than it might others toward the reject. Or toward this particular aspect of the reject.  Incompetence: the qualifications someone does not have to speak, for example, on the very topics she broaches, so that her speech relieves the words she utters of their authority, and thereby--accidentally--safeguards some things' crucial impossibility, warding off the certified forces of legitimacy bent on catapulting them into being just what they are.  Which is something else altogether.  “Laisse,” as Lacoue-Labarthe writes, in a poem…Let up, let go, let come and go what never arrives…[2]  And Blanchot:  "Keep watch over absent meaning.")[3]

Nancy himself greets the reject gladly, taking up Goh's language-play in the spirit of partage (sharing and separation, in French, especially Nancy's French: community without communing).  He writes, on the back cover of Goh's book, "Subject, Eject, Reject, Project: 'ject' is the theme, the tone, the issue. Irving Goh understands perfectly the jection without any  kind of junction, recognizing that what remains to be thought is just some ject-society or community.  In reading The Reject, one begins to join the unjoinable."

Nancy might have taken up the reject's re- as well as its -ject: the re- that is also in retrait and ritratto  (the withdrawn/redrawn portrait that attracts Nancy),[4] or in the trait and retrait of which he says that a singular being (a you or an I) is the communication. No communion in this communication. No first time, either, but a second without a first, without a model, or 'first person.' "It—or she, or he—is drawn in its (her, his) disappearance."  A you, an I—a particularity—is just the communication of its withdrawal-arrival, its retreating-returning.  "It offers itself, in suspense."[5]    

In any event, Irving Goh's Project, in The Reject, is to bring into focus—as the one coming after the subject—a figure (the reject) that he senses hovering implicitly or surfacing intermittently in the work of several French writers: Derrida, Deleuze, Cixous most clearly (though in different modes), Badiou, Rancière, Balibar in  cloudier but still challenging ways; and then, beyond France's frontiers, Cary Wolfe, Rosi Braidotti, Niklas Luhman among others, who tread suggestive if problematic paths.  Although in fact the reject has always been haunting philosophy—it comes before as well as after the subject ("I would say that the reject," Goh writes, "either as a figure or a gesture, has always subtended philosophy," (13))—his project here is to cause the reject's character (which is not to have one: not to present any attributes, properties, identifying traits) fully to emerge in the world of Nancy, Derrida, Deleuze, Cixous, which is to say, in the last few decades' critique and deconstruction of subjectivity in France.

The reject—and The Reject—often remind me suddenly of other things I have been thinking about, in a different context altogether.  This is one of the pleasures of Irving Goh's work.  An example is "le cancre," the dunce who drifts from time to time into the foreground of Emmanuel Hocquard's writing.  "In the rainbow of qualities, he has no color."[6]  Secretly he collects a few odd words for which no one, not even he, has any use: "nenuphar, etymology, pyramid, taffeta..."  This is not too different from what Hocquard (a poet) does.

To Goh's way of thinking, the reject is comprised of three "turns." In the first, it is  passive: someone or something chucked out, considered worthless. Millions upon millions of refugees, undocumented people, laid-off workers.  The second "turn" is active.  The reject can retaliate against the forces discounting or expelling it; indeed, even before getting expelled, it can itself reject things and people around it, thereby risking everything. In this mode, the reject draws Goh into the realm of political action, and he has observations to make about the Occupy Movement, the Arab Spring, about fake democracy and "democracy to come," about experimental forms of resistance and struggle.

In its "third turn," the reject turns on itself, so to speak, and becomes the "auto-reject." This is the turn Goh dwells on the most. It does not involve self-anhihilation or abjection, but rather an agile dodge or sidestep, so that the reject never establishes or grounds itself, never identifies itself via accumulated attributes, never assumes a position or embodies a principle.  Never, that is, turns back into a subject,  but remains ever open, to utterly disorienting thoughts, to unknown others, to others' indifference or recalcitrance, should that be what comes. The auto-reject is not just a subject committed to auto-criticism, Goh emphasizes. It does not just radically readjust its plans and strategies, alter its point of view.  It relinquishes its world, its being. "Giving up all that one has prepared and gathered for oneself, and giving up the position on which one has begun to ground or found oneself with all that one has gathered: that is what the subject is unable or reluctant to do.  The auto-reject, meanwhile, detaches or frees itself from such gathering and (self-) positioning" (8).

It bears an "ethical force," Goh says,  for everything about it "stems from the affirmation and respect of others," including respect for others' disinclination to enter any relation with it at all.  The auto-reject renounces every prerogative when it comes to hospitality—all autonomy, all power. It never renounces life, Goh says.  But that is all it holds onto. It relinquishes ground, horizon, self, friend, and thus it frees itself for life, for "creative regeneration" (7).

All three turns of the reject turn about each other, and Irving Goh leads the trio in the course of his book through several broad areas of interest, in each one of which the triple concept engages with big developments in post-structuralist thought. Thus, in the chapter on friendship, love and community, it is primarily the Derrida of  Politics of Friendship who presides, along with Nancy's Inoperative Community, Agamben's Coming Community and various texts by Deleuze and Guattari; in the chapter on religion or the "postsecular" (variously defined), it is Nancy again—his deconstruction of Christianity—and Derrida and Cixous, but also at some length, and at a different angle, Badiou: chiefly his Saint Paul.  It is in this chapter that we encounter animals (Derrida's "animal que donc je suis,"[7] and Cixous'

"divinanimalité"); animality will persist in the following chapter on politics, called "Prolegomenon to Reject Politics; From Voyous to Becoming-Animal. " Here Goh draws on Deleuze and Guattari, as well as Derrida, but Balibar and Rancière join in too. Before the conclusion, Goh presents the auto-reject in the context of "'posthuman' futures," taking stock of recent speculations by a considerable number of provocative academic theoreticians, but reserving his greatest sympathy for an idea of Lucretius's: the clinamen, which, especially as pursued by Michel Serres, by Deleuze and by Nancy, suggests to Goh a point of departure for thinking of auto-rejection—for thinking of life itself—as a sort of subtraction process instead of a process of accumulation and consolidation of the kind that characterizes the subject  ("deterritorialized" atoms keep departing unforeseeably from matter, and the same matter is forever exposed to countless heterogeneous atoms "people-ing" its surroundings, touching and withdrawing, drawing distance close...).[8]

A book such as this one, that seeks to enter a new idea in a vast and complex field, or to draw into the foreground certain implications of that field, has some liabilities, I think, and one of them is just the risk that the book come to feel a little like a slog: so many big concepts summarized, compared and contrasted; so much crucial terminology marshaled and deployed.  I have probably mentioned only about half of the writers Goh engages in The Reject.  One's sense of the exciting, perturbing movement of his thought—and of Deleuze's, Derrida's and the others'— could get lost in the laborious process of managing all the material.

Irving Goh's book has, to my mind, another liability, which is due to the difficulty of thinking and writing about an idea like that of the reject.  For, unless I have misunderstood, the reject has no properties and there is nothing proper to it. It is not a model for a better way of living. It is nothing to recommend.  Of course this is not news to Irving Goh.  On the contrary, he stresses it.  But he isn't always faithful to it.  No doubt the reject doesn't allow faithfulness, but requires something else.  "Incompetence," maybe? 

But there is no point in dwelling on my reservations when Goh's book includes so many developments that send me off to think afresh about preoccupations of my own.  For example, the dunce I mentioned earlier in this review—the dunce in Emmanuel Hocquard's writing—came to my mind again while I read Goh's chapter on friendship, love, and community. I particularly admire this part of his book for its picture of the countless messages circulating  among us now, thanks to which we are never done getting connected—and never free from spies and watchers.  Hocquard, for whom standard grammar and the national postal system were already bad enough, and who is always looking for a way to slip a message out of circulation, describes a wonderful moment when he is himself a total dunce, a "moment of idiocy" when, at the market, he fails just for a second to make the usual connection between a pyramid of oranges and, perched on top, a small slate with 5 F written on it in chalk.  Of course, in a second he gets it, the oranges cost five francs per kilo, but ever so briefly nonetheless he knows he has glimpsed something "inouï," incredible. For fifty-five years, he exclaims, I have been working to invent connections different from the ones that impose themselves, and here suddenly in front of a pile of oranges and a label, I've had "the vertiginous experience of a non-relation, accompanied," he adds, "by an intense sensation of peace and of liberty."[9] Such a dizzying interruption of the continuum, when it occurs between one and some one else,  turns out to be the sole truly sharable thing for Hocquard.  It is joy with no subject.  Sheer reciprocity.[10]   A split-second hiatus, imparting nothing.  My impulse to introduce Hocquard, a poet I love, into the world of the reject, is a small harbinger of the happy influence that Irving Goh's book is likely to exert far and wide.  

[1]              See the essay collection Who Comes After the Subject?, ed. Eduardo Cadava, Peter Connor, Jean-Luc Nancy (London and New York: Routledge, 1991).  In 1988, Nancy organized a special issue of the review Topoi around the question, and that issue was republished in France the next year with additional contributions. Cadava and Connor, in collaboration with Nancy, brought out an American edition of all the essays with several new contributions, in 1991.

[2]              See Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, Phrase (Paris: Christian Bourgois, 200), 9.

[3]              "Veiller sur le sens absent."  Maurice Blanchot, L'écriture du désastre (Paris: Gallimard, 1980), 72.

[4]              See Jean-Luc Nancy, The Birth to Presence (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1993), 316.

[5]              See Ibid., and also Jean-Luc Nancy, La communauté désoeuvrée (Paris: Christian Bourgois, 1986, 1990), 192.

[6]              See Emmanuel Hocquard, Un privé à Tanger (Paris: P.O.L, 1987), 220-21.

[7]              The animal which therefore I am—or, which therefore I follow.  See Jacques Derrida, L'animal que donc je suis (Paris: Galilée, 2006).

[8]              See The Reject, 232 ff.

[9]              See Emmanuel Hocquard, ma haie (Paris: P.O.L, 2001), 397-98.

[10]            See Emmanuel Hocquard, Méditations photographiques sur l'idée simple de nudité (Paris: P.O.L, 2009), 12, 13, 24.