An Attempt at Exhausting Negation

Scott Esposito, “Negation: a Response to Lars Iyer’s ‘Nude in Your Hot Tub’,” The White Review September 2012

I do not know whether I have anything to say, I know that I am saying nothing; I do not know if what I might have to say is unsaid because it is unsayable (the unsayable is not buried inside writing, it is what prompted it in the first place); I know that what I say is blank, is neutral, is a sign, once and for all, of a once-and-for-all annihilation.
— Georges Perec, W, or the Memory of Childhood

[…] One important thing Perec helped commodify was negation. Negation was a huge thing in the 1960s, when Perec began to write. It informed and empowered the groups then fighting against capitalistic culture. … Perec was one of those writers who, in part, made literature from the irony and ridicule of consumer society. … Yet there is much more to these books than a critique of mass culture. These are books built around missing pieces, feelings of emptiness, unsolvable quests. The same irony that ridicules Anne’s fad diet [in Life A User’s Manual] also gestures toward a heavy, existential sense of void. (Dieting is perhaps the single most widespread, obsessively unsolvable, mass-produced quest of post-capitalist existence.) For instance, in Things the protagonists go to Africa to find a meaning to life that they can’t in France. In A Void the absence of the letter e comes to represent the absence of some essential quality in modern life that gives rise to malaise. Reading Perec, one senses an artist self-consciously working on a grand scale to generalise this quality of negation to as many forms as possible — an effort to exhaust negation. Such ambitions are of a piece with the Oulipo manifestos, despite the fact that the manifestos are written with a clear sense of optimism. Aware of the exhaustion of art’s old forms, Oulipo strove to find new paths for the novel. Perec’s optimism in the face of negation is due in large part to how he fought to make negation itself an engine for innovation.

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