With new digital forms of communication, we face new forms of writing, new forms of signs and texts, of producing always new kinds of what Jacques Derrida calls “traces” in our world. The human being is no longer a spirited entity that produces sublime speech, but we are products of manifold traces that in turn leave a myriad of traces behind. How, then, does technology change our ways of communicating, our ways of thinking, our ways of existing? Does humanity altogether evolve into something new, something after humanism, something “post-human”?
These were among the questions of the recent Comparative Literature grad student conference at UT Austin entitled “The Extra-human”, with the keynote address by Avital Ronell. To leave a digital trace in this world, the Digital Writing and Research Lab facilitated audio recordings of this conference. “While rhetoric was traditionally linked to a specific occasion or event,” William Burdette, the DWRL coordinator, explains, “one of our goals in the DWRL is to capture these events in a digital way to make them accessible to everyone in a public domain.” In terms of digital rhetoric, it is one of the DWRL’s missions to “collect these traces and leave traces.”
Avital Ronell’s talk is now accessible to everyone. In her keynote about the “Complaint of the Human”, Ronell remarks after meditating from Plato to Derrida and from Hamlet to Celan that “those who live in stubborn destitution” and the “sovereigns, those who rule” are “all the same by stating that they can’t complain”. But for Ronell, the “Complaint of the Human” is part of trying to do justice in human existence. Nevertheless, she concludes for herself: “I could complain, but I renounce the temptation to do so. Anyway, who in a Rilkean syntax of being would hear me? On some level of ethical responsiveness, I am mandated to refrain from unloading the complains.”
And while Ronell left digital traces in the digital world, her call from the opening of her Telephone Book (1989) can still be heard that we have to “learn to read” with our “ears” and that when encountering her trace, we have to expect that it is “going to resist”. And if we “hang up, it does not disappear but goes into remission” because “here is no off switch to the technological.”
Above: Avital Ronell, Professor of German, English, and Comparative Literature as well as University Professor of the Humanities at New York University. Photo: Beck Wise. Right: The cover of Ronell’s Telephone Book.