“The swearword, the telegram, the epitaph” (Costica Bradatan)

JANUS HEAD, Summer/Fall Open Issue 2006 | 9.1

Book review: The Fragment: Towards a History and Poetics of a Performative Genre.
By Camelia Elias
Bern: Peter Lang, 2004.
397 pp.
ISBN 3-03910-470-5.
Paperback. $73.95.

One of the most remarkable accomplishments, though a somehow paradoxical and (self-)ironical one, of Camelia Elias in The Fragment. Towards a History and Poetics of a Performative Genre is that in this book she manages to talk about the topic of the fragment in the most comprehensive, systematic and non-fragmentary manner: she almost “exhausts” the topic, covers everything, every aspect of it, nothing is left untouched, no fragments of the fragment, so to speak, are left aside. And in this process of exhaustion a whole range of methodological approaches and interdisciplinary perspectives are employed: the fragment is being treated from the complementary angles of literary history and criticism, history of ideas, history of philosophy, critical theory, art history, philology and theology. Yet, I should add, even this paradox itself is not an accident: the fragment always attracts paradoxes. In an essential way, the fragment has a problematic nature, an ever-fleeing and “untamable” character. As Camelia Elias notices several times in her book, there is something profoundly fluid, plurisemantic and dynamic about the fragment, which makes it scholarly fascinating and puzzling at the same time: what “defines the fragment is ultimately its own dynamics, its own ability to mediate between its state of being and its state of becoming” (356)

It is precisely within the epistemic framework delineated by these two fundamental notions of the Western philosophy (being and becoming) that Camelia Elias chooses to place her philosophizing about the fragment:

the fragment forges two positions: it is and it becomes. Whereas the fragment’s manifestation as text throughout history is a question of constitution (being), in critical discourse the fragment’s manifestations are most often related to the question of function (becoming), which is to say that as a text in its own right the fragment is conceptualized in terms of content, whereas in critical discourse the fragment is conceptualized in terms of form. (353)

The body of Camelia Elias’ work unfolds progressively along the lines of a systematic analysis of these two major categories of fragments: a) “fragments (from different periods) as texts in their own right” and b) “the growing body of critical discourse on the fragment as literary genre.” (3-4) What Elias’ analysis aims at is mapping out the vast territories of the fragment and the fragmentary writings from Heraclitus to Derrida. Camelia Elias’s major ambition is to offer a comprehensive taxonomy of the various types of fragment one comes across in the Western tradition. She ends up with ten different types of fragment, “which goes against the idea that a fragment: (1) only exists insofar as it originates in a ‘whole’ text, whose loss of totality is marked by such words as incomplete, inconclusive, inconsequential…; or (2) only exists as a construction whose constitution is labeled by such words as unfinished, unstable, unaccountable…” (20) For each individual type of fragment a relevant individual author or book is presented in detail. The first five types of fragment (the object of Part I) “constitute themselves in a perspective which renders them as concepts characteristic of a static mode of being.” (355). These “being-types” are: the coercive fragment (with a discussion of Heraclitus), the consensual fragment (Friedrich Schlegel), the redundant fragment (Louis Aragon), the repetitive (Gertrude Stein) and the resolute (Emil Cioran). All of these types are, in Elias’ view, “labels which point to agency” (20). The five “becoming-types” (which are discussed in the book’s Part II) are: the ekphrastic fragment (with a detailed and very interesting discussion of Mark C Taylor’s Deconstructing Theology), the epigrammatic (Marcel Bénabou, especially his Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books), epigraphic (Gordon Lish and Derrida), emblematic (Avital Ronell’s The Telephone Book), and epitaphic (Nicole Brossard’s Picture Theory). These latter types “point to the fragments’ representational functions.” (20) What is remarkable about Camelia Elias’ taxonomy is that the ten types of fragment are not seen as the result of a process of mechanical reproduction, of bureaucratic juxtapositions so to speak, but as the unfolding of a sophisticated dialectical progression. The matrix generating this progression is to be found, according to Camelia Elias, in the dynamics of the form/content dichotomy: “This dichotomy relates to the static mode of being of the fragment and the active mode of becoming of the fragment by intersecting perspective and genre, thus engaging all ten types of fragments in exhibiting performativity.” (24) “Performativity” plays a central notion throughout the book, and, in the author’s view, “is best understood within the intersection of the poetics of perspective and poetics of genre.” (24) At this juncture, let it be added in passing, the interdisciplinarity of the project proves crucial: it functions as an epistemic guarantor, as something that can account for the always-multifaceted character of any given fragment. A Heraclitian fragment, for example, “is never itself, but either a text (of philological interest), a context (of philosophical interest), a history (of critical interest), or a story (or literary interest). …the construction of the fragment as fragment begins in fact as an interrelation between these four positions” (36)… [PDF]