In the Place of Language: Literature and the Architecture of the Referent

In the Place of Language: Literature and the Architecture of the Referent

In the Place of Language: Literature and the Architecture of the Referent

In the Place of Language: Literature and the Architecture of the Referent


The "place" in the title of Claudia Brodsky's remarkable new book is the intersection of language with building, the marking, for future reference, of material constructions in the world. The "referent" Brodsky describes is not something first found in nature and then named but a thing whose own origin joins language with materiality, a thing marked as it is made to begin with. In the Place of Language: Literature and the Architecture of the Referent develops a theory of the "referent" that is thus also a theory of the possibility of historical knowledge, one that undermines the conventional opposition of language to the real by theories of nominalism and materialism alike, no less than it confronts the mystical conflation of language with matter, whether under the aegis of the infinite reproducibility of the image or the identification of language with "Being."

Challenging these equally naive views of language - as essentially immaterial or the only essential matter - Brodsky investigates the interaction of language with the material that literature represents. For literature, Brodsky argues, seeks no refuge from its own inherently iterable, discursive medium in dreams of a technologically-induced freedom from history or an ontological history of language-being. Instead it tells the complex story of historical referents constructed and forgotten, things built into the earth upon which history "takes place" and of which, in the course of history, all visible trace is temporarily effaced. Literature represents the making of history, the building and burial of the referent, the present world of its oblivion and the future of its unearthing, and it can do this because, unlike the historical referent, it literally takes no place, is not tied to any building or performance in space.

For the same reason literature can reveal the historical nature of the making of meaning, demonstrating that the shaping and experience of the real, the marking of matter that constitutes historical referents, also defers knowledge of the real to a later date. Through close readings of central texts by Goethe, Plato, Kant, Heidegger, and Benjamin, redefined by the interrelationship of building and language they represent, In the Place of Language analyzes what remains of actions that attempt to take the place of language: the enduring, if intermittently obscured bases, of theoretical reflection itself.


No one who reads it will be more surprised than I that this book, which began as a study of what building is doing in pivotal works by Goethe, turned, step by step, into a theory of the referent. a skeletal chronology of its origin may serve the purpose of explaining not the surprising conclusion to which this study comes—the very purpose which the progress of the book ends up serving—but why that end was so thoroughly unexpected.

For several years I had understood that analyses of certain “mature” works by Goethe, those that composed a renewal and turningpoint in his literary writing, and whose conception was, by his own appraisal, the most far-reaching, would be as difficult to complete as they were essential to the completion of what was, during those years, a book-in-progress. That book-in-progress, which grew to include studies of several other authors as I continued to teach, and write on, Goethe, had itself started out as part of another book, a footnote to whose planned introduction developed into a book. the last and least foreseeable of these three works, on Descartes, was published some years ago; the first two, substantively written, and, in parts, published, before the present study of Goethe was completed, will now be published in their entirety after it.

1. From the odd chronology outlined here derives the necessity—awkward
for this author—of referencing some of those separately published studies at
different junctures in the argument of the present work. These references to
previous publications may sometimes convey the unsettling sense of a progress
in regress, and it is indeed the case that briefly noting the arguments of these
related studies, rather than restating them in their entirety, was a kind of
mental shorthand required for the present study to progress. Still, references

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