The Comparative Literature Undergraduate Journal

A Premier Humanities Research Journal at the University of California, Berkeley

The Conversion of the Gaze in the Work of Georges Perec

Austin Sarfan 

The French author Georges Perec (1936-1982), a member of the Oulipo, worked to revive the formal possibilities of literature and to expose the shape of everyday life through writing. Perhaps unexpectedly, Perec’s attempt to expose the elements of everyday life amounts to what the French historian of philosophy, Pierre Hadot (1922-2010), identifies as spiritual exercise in philosophy. For Hadot, spiritual exercise is a practice of ethical self-transformation. Like the Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius, whose Meditations Hadot interprets, for Perec, too, spiritual exercise is an ethical transformation of the self’s relation to the world. For Marcus Aurelius and Perec, a spiritual exercise of seeing the world differently—or, as I define it here, the conversion of the gaze—releases us from habitual forms of understanding which determine and limit how we see the world. Perec’s attempt to write and to see the everyday world differently through the conversion of the gaze is most evident in his practice of exhaustive description, but also informs a set of concepts which he associates with writing in general, and finds characterization in his magnum opus, Life: A User’s Manual. Perec’s method of representing the everyday therefore demonstrates how literature is involved with and intervenes in lived experience in a manner consistent with the practice of spiritual exercise in philosophy.

The Conversion of the Gaze

The conversion of the gaze is exemplified in Marcus Aurelius as a specific practice of seeing objects:

Look at a fine cuisine and other niceties this way: ‘Here is the corpse of a fish, there the dead body of a bird or a pig; this bottle of vintage Falernian is just grape juice, and that regal robe is only the wool of a lamb soaked in the blood of a shellfish.’ What about sexual intercourse? ‘This is the rubbing together of groins and the ejaculation of a sticky liquid accompanied by a spasm.’ Factual descriptions like these penetrate to the heart of the matter and allow you to see things for what they are. Practice this method of observation throughout your life, and whenever something makes ambitious claims for itself, lay those claims bare by stripping away all the fancy dress and exposing the naked facts. (Meditations 6.13)

In this example, Marcus Aurelius distinguishes between two ways of seeing. The first is the habitual way of seeing things, in which we see things in “fancy dress.” In this first way,  objects are clothed in the form of our habitual relations which adorn them. “Everyone knows,” common sense says, “that fine cuisine and sex are rightfully praised, and, as such, much energy is expended in order to acquire them.” However, as Marcus Aurelius notes, we may see these objects in a way that departs from their habitual and common praise. In this second way, we “see things for what they are” rather than for what they habitually appear to be.

We achieve this second way of seeing—a form of sight which we do not habitually exercise—through “[f]actual descriptions” of the exalted objects which “penetrate to the heart of the matter … exposing the naked facts.” Thus, rather than being clothed in their habitual sense, these things appear radically alien from their normal appearance. Well-prepared dinner is merely “the corpse of a fish”—hardly alluring and entirely unappetizing—while sex, reduced to lifeless biological terms, demonstrates nothing special. Marculus Aurelius therefore recommends practicing this second way of seeing, a factual method of observation, throughout one’s life as an ethical practice which allows one to evaluate, beyond common sense and habitual forms of thought, which may dominate one’s life.

Pierre Hadot defines this exercise of conversion to another form of sight in terms of spiritual exercise. As a spiritual exercise, Marcus Aurelius’s description of the objects are not in search of the final truth about the object. Rather, Marcus’s descriptions call into question the familiar understanding of the object which guides our relation to it. In this sense, Marcus’s “factual” descriptions of the object are intended to produce a transformation in the self’s relationship to the object. As Hadot writes, spiritual exercise involves a “complete reversal of received ideas,” where it is common to “renounce the false values of wealth, honors, and pleasures, and turn towards the true values of virtue, contemplation, a simple life-style, and the simple happiness of existing” (“SE” 104). Spiritual exercise is intended to “improve” and “transform” the individual: “Their goal is a kind of ‘self-formation,’ or paideia, which is to teach us to live, not in conformity with human prejudices and social conventions … but in conformity with the nature of man, which is none other than reason” (102). In the specific example of Marcus’s exercise of converting the gaze, a kind of spiritual exercise, the factual descriptions of the objects are a means he employs in order to change his way of evaluating the events and objects which go to make up human existence. He does this by defining these events and objects as they really are—‘physically,’ one might say—separating them from the conventional representations people habitually form of them. (“MA” 186)

It is through this kind of description that one sees through or beyond our habitual “fascination” with conventually celebrated and valued objects (186).

In the exercise of the conversion of the gaze, an individual converts their normal perception of the world into a radical view of everyday life which departs from conventional understanding. Hadot identifies the legacy of Marcus Aurelius’s exercise of conversion in modern thought, specifically in the context of French philosophy. He writes:

The ‘displacement of attention’ of which Bergson speaks, as in the case of Merleau-Ponty’s ‘phenomenological reduction,’ is in fact a conversion: a radical rupture with regard to the state of unconsciousness, in which man normally lives. The utilitarian perception we have of the world, in everyday life, in fact hides from us the world qua world. (“SW” 254)

In order to see the world which is hidden in our normal relations with it, we need to exercise “a complete transformation of our relationship to the world,” to convert our gaze to things and to the world which are habitually overlooked (253). It is only through this conversion that we remember that “we fabricate the objects of our worry, quarrels, social rituals, and conventional values” (258).

While Hadot points out the different phenomenological states that have been associated with this exercise of conversion, I am most interested here in the experience of defamiliarization which it may generate. Indeed, Carlo Ginzburg, in his essay “Making it Strange,” which is indebted to Hadot’s work on spirituality, charts the history of the spiritual exercise of conversion as the practice of defamiliarization in literature and literary theory, specifically from Marcus Aurelius to the literature of the French Enlightenment, to Tolstoy and Proust. A passage from “Cézanne’s Doubt,” praised by both Hadot and Ginzburg, however, serves to illustrate the way that defamiliarization tends to be associated with the conversion of the gaze. In “Cézanne’s Doubt,” Merleau-Ponty praises Cézanne’s work for conveying a total transformation of perception, departing from naïve and conventional relations with the world, and thus conveying the experience of conversion. Merleau-Ponty writes:

We live in the midst of man-made objects, among tools, in houses, streets, cities, and most of the time we see them only through the human actions which put them to use. We become used to thinking that all of this exists necessarily and unshakably. Cézanne’s painting suspends these habits of thought …. This is why Cézanne’s people are strange, as if viewed by a creature of another species. (“Cézanne’s Doubt” 16)

Thus, spiritual exercise of conversion in this context both requires and produces a specific disposition toward the familiar. Through the exercise of conversion, one breaks with the familiar, and therefore attains an unfamiliar perception of the world. The unfamiliar perception of the world induced through conversion thus presents the world to us as if it were entirely unknown, untouched and unaffected by our habitual relations with the world. This unfamiliar perception of the world therefore results in an experience of defamiliarization.

To use the conceptual vocabulary of Bill Brown’s “Thing Theory,” which synthesizes some of the themes introduced so far, though without situating itself in the context of spiritual practice, in our habitual relations with the world, we primarily relate to the linguistic context which represents the object, and remain unaware of the thing which is actually represented in discourse. Thus, things are defined by a “discourse of objectivity,” “codes by which our interpretive attention makes them meaningful” qua objects (“TT” 4). We simply use and relate to the conventional object as if the thing itself were contained, conveyed, or accessed by the representation, though in reality the thing is always an “illegible remainder,” “unspecifiable” by language (6). Consequently, these unspecifiable and hence obscure things “lie beyond the grid of intelligibility” (6). I will use this distinction between objects and things relatively and technically.

For purposes of the paper, we can begin with a definition of the conversion of the gaze: It is an exercise which intends to reveal the non-linguistic, naked thing, prior to its being covered up by linguistic objectification. This exercise relies on a distinction between two modes of relating to the world. The first is our naïve mode of relating with the world: here, we are bathed in habitual forms of understanding, and think that the linguistic object represents the thing itself adequately, without question. We see no difference between the thing and the object, and hence treat the thing as if it were necessarily defined in terms of its objectification. In the second mode, which I will call a converted or reflective mode, habitual forms of understanding, implicit in the representation of the object, are displaced, by making visible the previously invisible difference between object and the thing represented.

Conversion in Perec

The conversion of the gaze manifests itself in Perec’s work as an attempt to exhaust our familiar understanding of an object through meticulous description, and hence, as an attempt to encounter the thing beneath the conventional and self-evident form of the object. Perec’s use of this exercise can be described by way of Paul Klee’s epigraph which begins the “Preamble” to Life A User’s Manual by stating, “[t]he eye follows the paths that have been laid down for it in the work” (L XV). This quote indicates one way of understanding the ethical dimension of the conversion of the gaze: insofar as we habitually see in ways which we did not personally constitute or authorize, we run the risk of being blindly dominated by habitual forms of understanding. Both Things and A Man Asleep begin with a description of pre-determined ways of seeing in terms similar to this epigraph, indicating both Perec’s longstanding affinity for the quote by Klee, and longstanding concern for the ethical consequences borne from taking seriously that our naïve relations with the world are habitually informed by unknown predeterminations.

In  his short essay “Approaches to What?,” Perec voices his concern for the domain of the habitual which remains invisible in our everyday, naïve relations with the world, in which we remain oblivious to the conditions which inform our thought. Perec writes of his desire to “question the habitual,” and laments that because we’re habituated to it…it doesn’t seem to pose a problem, we live it without thinking, as if it carried within it neither questions nor answers, as if it weren’t the bearer of any information. This is no longer even conditioning, it’s anaesthesia. We sleep through our lives in a dreamless sleep” (210).

Our conventional and habitual forms of understanding, which we overlook in our daily lives, fundamentally obscure a necessary clarity. For Perec, we do not see the habitual, and it dominates us to such an extent that it is as if we were incapable of achieving a clear, wakeful understanding. In response to the obscurity of our habits, Perec recommends bringing into view “what happens every day and recurs every day: … the infraordinary, the background noise, the habitual,” which we do not usually concern ourselves with (210).

In Species of Spaces, Perec outlines a practice of exhaustively describing an object, which carries out the practice of observation recommended by Marcus Aurelius. In this sense, Perec intends to convert our gaze to the “infraordinary,” which passes by us unnoticed, despite it composing the fabric of our daily lives. Like Marcus Aurelius, Perec makes recourse to a specific practice of observation which intends to break with the supposed self-evidence of objects defined by common sense. In the example given in Species of Spaces of this exercise of description, Perec’s object of description is a street, and he guides the reader through the process of its description with the simple mandate: “Note down what you can see” (50). However, Perec immediately challenges the assumption that, in our first, basic attempt to see the street, we will see anything at all. Thus, he asks: “Do you know how to see what’s worthy of note? Is there anything that strikes you? Nothing strikes you. You don’t know how to see” (53).

For Perec, learning how to see involves breaking from our familiar mode of sight, which remains captive to preconceived forms of understanding. In order to learn how to see, we must convert our attention to see “more slowly, almost stupidly,” to observe “what is of no interest, what is most obvious, most common, most colourless” (SS 53). This kind of description involves an attempt to see the most basic things which compose the street and for which the street may be used. Thus, Perec recommends meticulously describing the buildings and shops which line the street, the rhythm of traffic and the license plates of the cars, the clothes and behavior of the people, the routes of the buses and the movements of the animals. Even through this process of description, Perec maintains that we are inclined to give up too easily, and hence, to remain in our habitual mode of perceiving the world, seeing only what is conventionally understood. He writes: “Don’t say, don’t write, etc.” (50). Nothing can remain implicit, unsaid, left to the imagination, which imposes conventional images in the blank spaces which remain unexhausted. Thus,  Perec says, “Make an effort to exhaust the subject, even if that seems grotesque, or pointless, or stupid. You still haven’t looked at anything, you’ve merely picked out what you’ve long ago picked out” (50).

Breaking with our habitual imagination, which dresses the street in preconceived, conventional familiarity, involves a meticulous exhaustion of the elements which actually compose the street in question. In this sense, it is the conventional representation, composed through habitual forms of understanding, that must be decomposed through exhaustive description of the thing itself—this street in front of me, which I am observing. The radical decomposition of the thing into its basic “physical” or “factual” elements which are usually overlooked by our habitual understanding thus displaces the familiarity with which we normally relate to the object. As such, the decomposition of the thing induces an experience of defamiliarization, in which the thing, beyond linguistic intelligibility, is finally, though momentarily, experienced. Perec writes:

Carry on [with description] Until the scene becomes improbable, until you have the impression, for the briefest moments, that you are in a strange town or, better still, until you can no longer understand what is happening or is not happening, until the whole place becomes strange, and you no longer even know that this is what is called a town, a street, buildings, pavements. (SS 53)

The thing appears beyond representation, beyond intelligibility, and is hence, alien and foreign. The grasp of language’s objectification of the thing is exhausted, and only the described—and hence de-composed—components of the thing remain. One way to formulate this is in terms of extension: while a linguistic concept can be said to represent an infinite number of things insofar as they meet the universal criteria of the general object, the exercise of decomposition demonstrates the very haecceity of the thing itself, which exceeds any universalizable criteria.

By way of this exhaustive description, Perec notes, we have an “impression, for the briefest moments” of strangeness. Thus, Perec’s use of conversion is a clear example of the effect of defamiliarization associated with the conversion of the gaze. This strangeness manifests itself in two forms. First, in the impression “that you are in a strange town” (SS 53). The town is strange, or—the strangeness of the town begins to encounter the individual, and the linguistic object of the town, hence, begins to lose its grip on the thing in question.

When the thing in question not only absolutely exceeds its linguistic object, but the connection between the object and thing is absolutely severed, the final moment of defamiliarization occurs. The significance of the object town, street, etc., fails to adequately correspond to the thing in question, such that what we see and what we call what we see are disconnected. Language no longer registers its connection to things in any way—the connection between language and what we see is severed, dismembered, such that what we see emerges in its defamiliarizing presence; that is, as a non-linguistic, unintelligible, multiplicity of decomposed elements. Understanding and intelligibility breaks down, “the whole place becomes strange, and you no longer even know that this is what is called a town, a street, buildings, pavements” (SS 53). Here, it is not simply that this is a strange town or street; rather, the object ‘town’ or ‘street’ absolutely fails to designate what this thing, in its pure strangeness, is. This corresponds to the achievement of defamiliarization proper.

However, like Marcus Aurelius as interpreted by Hadot, Perec is also not in search of the final truth of the thing, which would “scientifically” overturn the falsity of conventional understanding. Rather, Perec’s practice of exhaustive description is primarily ethical, intended to inspire a sense of authority which is covered up in our naïve relations with the world. In Species of Spaces, Perec implies that writing as exhaustive description, in its ability to reveal the decomposed elements which are overlooked in the composite image of an object, allows us to remember the immanent production of significance which need not be dominated by conventional understanding. Through fragmentary experiences of the world, we come to know the “world’s concreteness, irreducible, immediate, tangible,” as “clear and closer to us,” as opposed to something which would negate any intelligibility insofar as it transcends our comprehension. Our fragmentary or decomposed experience of the world in fact can function as “the rediscovery of a meaning, the perceiving that the earth is a form of writing, a geography of which we had forgotten that we ourselves are the authors” (SS 79).

For Perec, the meaning of an object is not exhaustively contained in the truth of a final representation, but in the work involved in interrogating the elements—in their very basic decomposition—of every representation. The practice of decomposition is thus a way to reclaim objective meaning, which may seem so totally predetermined as to induce hopelessness. The knowledge gained of parts of the world thus allows us to re-member a significant relationship between immanent, decomposed parts, and the composite, conventional image or object which our gaze was both captivated by, and practically unaware of, in our naïve relations with the world. The remembrance of the relationship between a meaning which we did not author, which predetermines our understanding, and our ability to transform this meaning by bringing into view the elements which inform it, thus constitutes a sense of personal authority over conventional meaning, even if fragmentary. Thus, at the end of “Approaches to What?,” Perec says:

It matters little to me that these questions should be fragmentary, barely indicative of a method, at most of a project. It matters a lot to me that they should seem trivial and futile: that’s exactly what makes them just as essential, if not more so, as all the other questions by which we’ve tried in vain to lay hold on our truth. (211)

Again, at the end of Species of Spaces, Perec posits the significant value of decomposed elements against the supposed totality of a world which seems to negate the possibility of any real significance. He writes:

Space melts like sand running through one’s fingers. Time bears it away and leaves me only shapeless shreds: To write: to try meticulously to retain something, to cause something to survive; to wrest a few precise scraps from the void as it grows, to leave somewhere a furrow, a trace, a mark or a few signs. (91-92)

 The Void

Despite the fact that Perec entertains a conception of “true realism,” understood as a “description of reality divested of all presumptions,” this is an ideal which can never be completed in language or through description itself. As an ideal, it indeed motivates a perpetual work of “meticulous description” under “submission to experience” (132). Perec’s conception of the void, experienced through decomposition, in fact indicates the impossibility of the project of description divested of all presumption. The experience of the void is not the negation of meaning, but is rather the experience of the immanent meaning of decomposed language.

This is clear insofar as Perec places the void in a specific relation to the activity of language. In Species of Spaces, Perec determines that the void is beyond intelligibility, and hence, beyond language. Here, Perec tries to think of “a space without a use,” a “functionless space” which “would serve for nothing, relate to nothing” (33). Here, Perec understands the void as space devoid of convention: “It would serve for nothing, relate to nothing,” absolutely severed from any “functions, rhythms, habits, … necessity” (34). This attempt to think of a functionless space, a space absolutely devoid of convention, amounts to an attempt to think of the void in terms of a real thing—a room—as something which could be comprehended by thought in the form of an object. Perec’s attempt to think of the void as space which could be comprehended fails. He explains this failure as intrinsic to language: “For all my efforts, I found it impossible to follow this idea through to the end. Language itself, seemingly, proved unsuited to describing this nothing, this void, as if we could only speak of what is full, useful and functional” (33).

Thus, language cannot comprehend an object devoid of convention. In fact, language and intelligibility, all conventional, are opposed to the void. In Species of Spaces, Perec calls this fact the “statute of the inhabitable” (35). The realization of this statute for Perec is productive. Despite failing to comprehend an uninhabitable space, a void, Perec says he did not altogether waste his time. His effort, in fact, was productive: it “seemed to produce something that might be a statute of the inhabitable” (SS 35). Perec learns that the void cannot be apprehended, inhabited, represented, contained, etc.—in short, it cannot be adequately objectified. It can only be experienced as that which is inadequately objectified, as the thing, by way of exhaustive description. However, language always encounters the “improbable limit” (34) of its intelligibility at the experience of the thing, a limit which induces the experience of the void. Thus, in an interview entitled “The Work of Memory,” Perec says that his exhaustive descriptions—which take shape through “something not unlike meditation, a wanting to create a void”—attempt to actually reach an experience that will never be apprehended by—how shall I put it? by my consciousness, my feelings, by an idea, by any ideological elaboration! … This is an experience at ground level, what you call background noise. It’s experience grasped at the level of the setting in which your body moves, … [in] all the ordinariness [of daily life and activity, etc.]…, with the exploring of your space” (131-132).

Thus, the void is the experience of the limit of the conventional. As such, Perec can never finally achieve a description of the thing itself, insofar as every description is mediated by language, and hence, cannot inhabit the void. If the experience of the void is achieved through exhaustive description, in the form of defamiliarization, it is an experience which cannot be described, and which has no access to a truth of the thing actually “outside” of the object, insofar as truth would have to be intelligible. Thus, rather than grant pure access to the thing, exhaustive description deforms the form of the object: it stretches it to its limit, reworks it, and reimagines it. This allows for a transformation of the individual’s relation to the object, in the form of a newfound sense of authority. However, insofar as description always thus inspires the object in new ways, the object will need to be continuously described if it is not to become another static composition. The explication of exhaustive description will always need to be performed anew, just as for Marcus Aurelius the practice of observing the facts of the things should be practiced throughout one’s life.

Exhaustive description thus indefinitely displaces and transforms, rather than finally denouncing or overcoming, the conventional comprehension of linguistic objects. These linguistic objects which circulate as compositions representing the essences of things are in fact called into question through the exercise of exhaustive description, which decomposes the object into immanently significant elements, which exceed any adequate representation. The attempt to introduce the thing outside the limits of its conventional representation defines the function of writing for Perec, and corresponds to the experience of the void. While this experience inspires writing—as the rewriting of what is written, the interrogation of what is represented, the decomposition of what has been composed—it can only stretch language thin, as a kind of elasticity.

In this sense, the void appears to be much more of a nourishment than a nothingness: as background noise, it is the inexhaustible source of all objects which may be exhausted, the source of implicit convention from which all exhaustive descriptions “converts” its energy. This is precisely why the exercise of conversion takes the limit of the void as its term: the defamiliarizing experience of making explicit our own assumptions borders on an infinite regress that can never be founded, and shades off into unintelligibility, the experience of defamiliarization.

Perec’s true realism then—the search for the space devoid of convention—can never be achieved. Keeping in mind the way that Perec articulates in Species of Spaces the relationship between the void—that which is devoid of convention—and language, which is entirely conventional, it is clear that Perec’s can never form of a final, composite image free of presumption by way of linguistic description. Thus, in “Notes on What I’m Looking For,” Perec describes a “total image” which he believes his work is approaching, but which he knows will never be achieved. This paradoxical achievement of this total image through writing practiced as decomposition, it seems, would be the achievement of a non-linguistic void, which demands responsibility, but can never be contained. Perec says:

it seems I shall never be able to grasp that image exactly, that for me it lies beyond writing, it’s a ‘why do I write’ to which I can reply only by writing, by endlessly deferring that moment when I cease from writing and the image becomes visible, like a puzzle that has been inexorably completed. (143)

Perec can only multiply the “factual” objects of reality through continuous decomposition.

The displacement of convention through the multiplication of meaning which is not contained in the conventional representation of the object is essential to Perec’s task. It demonstrates the perpetual insufficiency of representation, and its forgetting of the need to continuously take account of the difference between its claim to represent reality, and the reality which it indeed represents. Thus, Perec’s inability to complete his project in final terms is not its fault, but is rather bound up with its goal: the continuous, transversal displacement of convention, the work of writing as fragmentary exhaustion, which interrogates the pre-determined authority of language, without ever claiming to possess an authority itself which would be final or exclusive.

This relationship between naïve representation and an ethic of writing as decomposition of the represented object—which amounts to perpetual work, since the implicit is never eradicated entirely—is exemplified throughout Perec’s Life A User’s Manual.

Life and Memory

Life presents the decomposition of the object “community.” In doing so, the essential practice of decomposition and the experience of the void, in correspondence with language and representation, reverberates throughout. While I do not have the space to detail all of its occurrences, I do want to indicate how the relationship between decomposition and composition informs Perec’s characterization of Bartlebooth and Valène.

Bartlebooth’s task is essentially compositional. Not only does he compose the paintings—representations of landscapes—which are then given to Winckler to decompose into a puzzle, but he also recomposes these puzzles back into the original image. However, Bartlebooth likewise enjoys the experience of puzzling, which stems from an original experience of conversion: the “difference of orientation” in the map representing America in Bartlebooth’s bedroom “fascinated Bartlebooth” in its subversion of “habitual perceptions of space … And in this minimal switch lay hidden the very image of his jigsaw-puzzle mind” (L 439).

Indeed, Bartlebooth’s passion for puzzling is sustained by his passion for the spiritual experience of conversion, the departure from familiar ways of perceiving. After hours of waiting for the right piece, Perec writes, Bartlebooth reaches “a kind of ecstasy, a stasis, a sort of oriental stupor, akin, perhaps, to the state archers strive to reach,” and experiences a form of “attentiveness that remained total, but that was disengaged from the vicissitudes of being” in which he can “see without looking” (L 382). Thus, Perec depicts Bartlebooth’s vision here as a radical departure from its normal state. To a large degree, Bartlebooth achieves the kind of observational and reflective form of sight recommended by Marcus Aurelius, which characterizes the exercise of conversion. For Bartlebooth, the conversion of the gaze occurs insofar as his solution to a particularly difficult piece of the puzzle involves freeing his vision from the predetermined structure which he assumes to be the essence of the fit. As Perec writes, Bartlebooth’s “intimation of grace,” in discovering the solution to a fit between pieces of the puzzle that had been obscured by his insistence of a supposedly more obvious fit, made Bartlebooth feel as if he had second sight: he could perceive everything, understand everything …: he would juxtapose the pieces at full speed, … which all ought to have indicated the solution from the start, had he but had eyes to see: in a few instants … a situation that he could no longer even imagine untying, would be altered beyond recognition…” (382-383).

Bartlebooth’s “failure” consists of his trying to compose absolutely, in the form of his plan, without any excess trace, what is essentially only experienced through the practice of conversion, which necessarily involves decomposition: the void. As Perec writes, Bartlebooth “wanted the whole project to come full circle without leaving a mark …; his aim was for nothing, nothing at all, to subsist, for nothing but the void to emerge from it, for only the immaculate whiteness of a blank to remain, only the gratuitous perfection of a project entirely devoid of utility” (L 442). Thus, Bartlebooth intends to comprehend the void as an object, rather than responding to the experience of the void as a limit in conversion; he violates the statute of the inhabitable, that Perec had identified as the inability to comprehend the void as such. As Perec writes, the gaze of Bartlebooth is “more violent than a void” (142).

In contrast to the immaculate whiteness of a finally comprehended void desired by Bartlebooth, Perec describes the crepuscular “black hole” of Winckler’s “revenge” which compromises the completion of Bartlebooth’s plan. As the puzzle-maker, engaged in decomposition, Winckler thus ensures that Bartlebooth’s plan for ultimate and complete composition remains incomplete, disposed to a fundamental and irreducible excess. The decomposition of the puzzle wins out:

On the tablecloth, somewhere in the crepuscular sky of the four hundred and thirty-ninth puzzle the black hole of the sole piece not yet filled in has the almost perfect shape on an X. But the ironical thing, which could have been foreseen [previsible] long ago, is that the piece the dead man holds between his fingers is shaped like a W. (L 565)

If Bartlebooth violates the void in attempting to finally comprehend it in a final composition—only to be countered by Winckler’s strategically placed act of decomposition—Valène’s delicate responsibility to the void seems sufficient for Perec. Valène desires both to represent communal life, but also to remain responsible to its imperceptible, decomposed excess. Thus, Perec says, Valène tries to resuscitate those imperceptible details which over the course of fifty-five years had woven the life of this house and which the years had unpicked one by one… The stairs, for him, were, on each floor, a memory, an emotion, something ancient and impalpable, something palpitating somewhere in the guttering flame of his memory: a gesture, a noise, a flicker …. (L 69)

Of course, Valène desires to represent, in a painting, the entirety of the apartment building. However, Valène recognizes that composing this picture—a re-composition of communal life—necessarily involves responding to rather than comprehending the excess of decomposition. Valène conceives of the idea of his picture in terms of “laid-out, broken-up images,” in terms of a “shattered building laying bare the cracks of its past, the crumbling of its present” (L 144). Thus, thinking of his planned composition, Valène thinks “of the slow installation of furniture and objects, of the slow adaptation of the body to space, that whole sum of minute, nonexistent, untellable events…—all those infinitesimal gestures in which the life of a flat is always most faithfully encapsulated” (145). Valène does not wish to annihilate or comprehend the decomposed elements, to neutralize their excess, but to treat them faithfully.

Finally, this function of writing as fundamentally a process of decomposition—and moreover, like in the case of Valène, as the description of a decomposed memory—is consistent with Perec’s early remarks on writing in “Robert Antelme or the Truth of Literature.” Perec praises Antelme’s book for decomposing the self-evident image which had been composed of the concentration camps. “Antelme refuses to treat of his experience as a whole, as given once and for all…. He breaks it up” (257). Antelme’s decomposition of the ready-made image of the camps activates “a consciousness that goes to the limit” (257). Thus, at this limit, conversion occurs, and with it a responsibility to the void: The world is “no longer that chaos which words void of meaning despair of describing.” Rather, responding to the void, no longer despairing over it, the individual participates in a “gradual overcom[ing]” of a world which seemed so total as to annihilate the possibility of meaning (266).

The perpetual activity of remembrance defines the work involved in a world wherein discourse poses itself as self-evident in our naïve relations. As Perec says, solidarity “is linked to precise circumstances” (260). To accomplish solidarity means to remember the implicit relationship between circumstances and activity, forgotten in our naïve mode. It would be an “error” to think that the circumstances go without saying, or “speak for themselves” (“RA” 256). In this sense, conversion—defined as a work of remembrance, which involves interrogating and thus re-membering the inadequacies of our own discourse—is an exercise at once both ethical, insofar as it makes explicit the infraordinary of an individual’s daily life, and political, insofar as it makes explicit the historical memory implied in society. It is through the work of the conversion of the gaze that one brings into view the habitually invisible, what “goes without saying.” ■ 



Aurelius, Marcus. The Emperor’s Handbook: A New Translation of the Meditations. Trans. C. Scot Hicks and David V. Hicks. New York: Scribner, 2002.

Brown, Bill. “Thing Theory.” Things. Ed. Bill Brown. Chicago: University of    Chicago, 2004.

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