AWASH IN NEWS about legislative impasses, labor impasses, and the Brexit impasse, we are not surprised to find Emily Apter opening her 2018 Unexceptional Politics: On Obstruction, Impasse, and the Impolitic with the claim that “impasse is perhaps the new watchword for the contemporary state of politics” (16). In her incisive study of non-classical political terms and tactics, Apter explores a range of different notions of obstruction and gridlock, yet in the course of the discussion, her watchword makes strikingly few appearances and ultimately does not even warrant a place in the index. While impasse is clearly one of her guiding concerns, Apter proceeds as if we all share a common understanding of its reach and nuance. Surveying recent theoretical discussions in the humanities, we find something similar. The very familiarity of the term impasse seems to ensure that it is rarely treated as a concept requiring precise exposition. Be it deconstruction’s well-known preoccupation with undecidability and aporia or the role that deadlocks and dead ends play in psychoanalysis, Marxism, and environmental studies, impasse is routinely mentioned without any formal account of what it means to come to, be at, or break through one.
In its most unyielding guise, an impasse is an insurmountable problem. Negotiations are at a standstill; the jury is hung; there is no prospect of forward progress. If a solution is at all conceivable, it will depend on what is currently inconceivable, namely a fundamental change in the ideas, persons, or forces at loggerheads. When it is the unforeseen outcome of a rigorous analysis, an impasse hints that the logic being employed is not as reliable as billed. When it brings an ostensibly sound system to a halt, it calls the viability of the systemic into question. As a genuine dead end, an impasse can make a mockery of teleology, while as a form of discursive paralysis, it would seem to attack the authority of rhetorical dynamics, benumbing the very turns that constitute the tropological.
Of course, merely to identify an impasse is already to delimit its reach by treating it as a negative moment that can be situated within a larger field in which its authority does not hold absolute sway. Far from an insuperable challenge, the putative rupture may prove to be just a temporary hiccup. Indeed, in failing to be inexpressive or “impassive” enough to effect a total shutdown, an impasse not infrequently becomes an impetus for further development. Perhaps because an impasse always appears to contain the seeds of its own dissolution, it is not uncommon to take some satisfaction in the way it invites us to rethink our convictions. We may even find ourselves celebrating the appearance of impasse as evidence of our own rigor, proof that the dilemmas under scrutiny are being explored with uncompromising precision.
In philosophy, impasse is associated with the term for which it is considered to be an excellent translation, the Greek aporia, which is derived from the adjective aporos: “impassable or untraversable.” Aristotle describes aporia as a clash between two starkly opposed lines of reasoning that appear to be equally compelling. In this vein, aporia is often lumped together with paradox and other affronts to the principle of noncontradiction. (“All Cretans are liars,” said the Cretan.) In contrast to the modern English noun impasse, the Greek term also has an experiential valence, describing the subjective sense of confusion that results when one does not know how to proceed in the face of a confounding contradiction or disjunction. In this vein, Plato likens the vertigo or inarticulateness aporia induces to being tossed about in a storm. Classical aporia is also linked to a sense of conceptual finitude—the resources to advance are simply not at hand. These difficulties notwithstanding, the predicaments that go under the name of aporia are not without their attractions. A philosopher may well believe that insight and understanding are to be won precisely by entering into a cloud of confusion and coming out the other side.
Another term with which impasse is often associated is antinomy. In his Institutio oratoria, Quintilian describes antinomy as the side-by-side presentation of diametrically opposed arguments. Kant relies on this rhetorical figure in all three of his Critiques, and his efforts to “solve” the seemingly intractable clashes he details become a crucial point of reference for his inheritors. Some will celebrate Kant’s accounts of the antinomies as the moment at which reason most directly grasps its own limits, a key step in the elaboration of a transcendental idealism. Others will disparage Kant for not going far enough in exploring the formative and transformative features of negation. Here the best-known detractor is Hegel, who fears that his predecessor’s system is intrinsically dualistic and that Kant’s attempts to explain away impasses themselves become an impasse to grasping the irreducibly antinomical character of the concept. In the course of these debates, diverse figures of blockage, paralysis, and rupture multiply. Friedrich Schlegel’s notion of a permanent parabasis, the conception of Schweben (“hovering”) in Fichte and Schelling, and manifold instantiations of the sublime will all prove crucial for understanding the powers and limits of language and the mind in Romantic and post-Romantic thought, including twentieth-century critical theory and aesthetics and, of course, literary theory.
On more than one occasion, literary theory itself has been vilified as an impasse. In a 1981 seminar presentation at Columbia University entitled “To Keep the Road Open,” Frank Kermode argued that theorists constitute a genuine roadblock to the teaching of the canon and the furthering of humanistic education in general. Whether “going forward” is the only route to knowledge and insight was not a question he asked. Paul de Man, one of Kermode’s respondents in the seminar, was of a different mind. Not only did he title his reply “Blocking the Road,” but he happily likened himself and other literary theorists to “squatters who obstruct the flow of traffic” (188). De Man’s colleague Geoffrey H. Hartman was even more blunt on this score. “At every point,” Hartman claimed, “deconstruction prefers to develop the notion of critique as impasse” (106). For scholars who embrace a traditional ideal of progress, if not the colonial fantasy of a limitless supply of new realms of study just waiting to be explored, any disruption of their “advances” is bound to be viewed as a form of rebellion. In their efforts to obstruct humanist thoroughfares, critical discourses such as deconstruction have thus offered considerable appeal to those with less of an investment in traveling down these Eurocentric paths to Enlightenment.
Contemporary theoretical discourses have not shaken the charge of obstructionism. More than two decades after Kermode’s polemic, Bruno Latour attempted to put us back on track, or rather back on the tracks, when he penned the now widely cited essay “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?” Latour replaces Kermode’s road with rails, his villain is not just poststructuralism but all of critical thought since Kant, and the immediate threat is ostensibly the appropriation of theory’s tools by extremists rather than theory’s essential antipathy toward an aesthetic education. Nonetheless, the basic message of Latour’s intervention is the same as Kermode’s: critique is at an impasse because of the impasse of theory, and we need to find new ways of moving forward if we are to have any chance of preparing the youth for the challenges of this increasingly dangerous world. After all, asks Latour, “is it not time for some progress?” (243).
The rhetoric of progress has been explored from countless angles. This collection of essays starts from the premise that it is time to focus on the rhetoric of impasse. What notions of movement and stasis does the concept of impasse assume, produce, or render impossible? Does the thinking of impasse offer an alternative to teleological schemas of politics and history, or is it merely an effect of them? How might the tendency to value impasse, whether positively or negatively, preclude ways of thinking about other phenomena for which impasse often stands in as a kind of catch-all—and potentially rather imprecise—term?
Acknowledging the difficulty of writing about an impasse as an impasse—as a genuine moment of blockage rather than as a spur to something else—our first contributor, Brian McGrath, approaches the concept of impasse obliquely, “with a bit of sleight of hand,” through an analysis of impassivity. In “Impassivities: From Paradise Lost to Hellas,” he begins by tracing the etymologies of impasse and impassive. Although the two words are false cognates, McGrath exploits the pun to explore how the absence of pain and feeling in John Milton’s Paradise Lost and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Hellas provokes an impasse far more difficult to contend with than what is designated in these texts as impassable. In both works, impassivity has an explicitly political function. For Shelley in particular, the “impassive soul” is figured as an irreducible point of resistance against tyranny and slavery and is therefore invested with revolutionary potential. At the same time, argues McGrath, Hellas challenges this belief in impassivity—and more generally, in the existence of anything beyond the reach of power—most notably in the final lines when the chorus abruptly interrupts its own prophecy of social renewal and the poem ends in a deadlock. While readers have long recognized that the question of how to fight tyranny without renewing tyrannical structures is crucial for Shelley, McGrath is the first to demonstrate the central role that impasse and impassivity play in these reflections.
In the context of politics, an impasse usually involves a deadlock or dead end. In “Impasse, Promise, and Impossible Community: Blanchot’s Community of Lovers and Kleist’s Michael Kohlhaas,” Kir Kuiken examines the works of two writers for whom impasse is rather the condition of possibility for a new form of community. For both Blanchot and Kleist, an impasse between the most minimal form of community and the body politic of the state emerges as the form proper to insurrection itself. In Blanchot’s The Unavowable Community, the events of May ’68 are said to create the possibility of a community founded on an impossible promise to which the state cannot accede other than by radically reconstituting itself. In Kleist’s Michael Kohlhaas, the eponymous protagonist’s insurrection is driven not, as is often assumed, by his fanatical adherence to either the universality of the law or the principle of jus talionis, but by the impossibility of restitution for the death of his wife Lisbeth, whose postmortem appearance introduces a promise that is structurally prior to the state’s constitution. According to Kuiken, such insurrection neither preserves the existing juridical-political order nor founds a new one. Through its refusal to negotiate with that order, it instead opens the non-universal conditions of another form of community. For Blanchot and Kleist, concludes Kuiken, it is precisely this unique promise that enacts impasse and actualizes impossibility.
In her 2011 essay “Looking at the Stars Forever,” Rei Terada explored how impasse acquires a similarly positive valence for Romantic-era radicals insofar as it functions as a barricade against the totalization of political space. In her contribution to this issue, “Impasse as a Figure of Political Space,” Terada revisits the terms of that essay and argues that whether valorized positively or negatively, the impasse/breakthrough structure is itself a product of history, power, and territory that serves to naturalize what Cedric Robinson calls “the order of politicality”: the identification of the political organization of power with social organization as such. Through an analysis of Antonio Gramsci’s thoughts on the war of position in his Prison Notebooks, a reconsideration of the critical reception of Hegel’s master/slave dialectic, and a stunning reading of how that dialectic first takes shape in the “Lordship and Bondage” passage in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, Terada shows that in elevating political power struggle, the reality principle of impasse renders various possibilities of social organization illegible by leveling them to the negative category of the nonpolitical. Although perceptions of impasse would seem to preserve political potential, they also encourage people to accept violent political processes as the only viable social reality. As a result, the prospect of stepping outside the framework of the political becomes almost unimaginable, and yet, suggests Terada, perhaps the only thing that would be lost in doing so is the illusion of a space to protect.
Spatializing operations are also a concern in Lenora Hanson’s essay, “‘Ludicrous Anachronisms’: Dreams, Enclosures, and Mary Robinson’s ‘The Maniac,’” which examines the implications of enclosure through an analysis of analogical relations in late eighteenth-century accounts of dream logics. Hanson begins by identifying an impasse between two apparently contradictory ways in which analogy has been construed in recent theory and criticism: as an expropriating logic that establishes relations of equivalence on the one hand, and as a technique of open-ended systems that establishes nonhierarchical relations of difference on the other. Although these two functions are seemingly at odds, Hanson argues that both are essential to analogy and, more importantly, to the process of enclosure, which, following Silvia Federici and others, she conceptualizes broadly as an anachronistic process of accumulating and ordering differences that extends beyond the historical dispossession of the commons. Turning to Robinson’s 1791 poem “The Maniac,” Hanson proposes that in the late eighteenth century dreams became a privileged figural space in which the turns and tensions of this process are explored, reading “The Maniac” as an illustration of how forms of “non-work” such as gendered labor and criminalized mobility became features of capital accumulation. In Hanson’s political analysis of analogy, what appears to be a structural impasse turns out to be a fluid and productive operation that enables forms of violence and yet still offers a potential site of resistance.
The tendency of so-called impasses to turn into something other than standstills and instances of blockage leads Taylor Schey to question whether genuine impasse is actually possible. “Impasse? What Impasse? Berlant, de Man, and the Intolerable Present” begins with the observation that leftist theories of political and historical change often have recourse to the idea of a breaking point or threshold at which conditions become intolerable and radical action therefore becomes a necessity. According to Schey, this idea condenses a cruelly optimistic dream that theories of impasse share as well as scrutinize. Examining how Lauren Berlant (the theorist of cruel optimism) and Paul de Man (the theorist most often associated with notions of impasse) develop complementary analyses of what Berlant terms “the impasse of the present,” Schey shows that both thinkers ultimately suggest that an impasse is best understood as an impossibility—as an insurmountable obstacle that only becomes legible as such in the wake of having been bypassed. To explore the broader implications of this impossibility, Schey offers readings of KC Green’s webcomic “On Fire” (from which the well-known “This is Fine” meme was derived) and its sequel comic, “This is Not Fine,” which together illustrate the dream of a revolutionary breaking point and its limitations. Whereas critics of rhetorical deconstruction fear that acknowledging the radical figurality of language would paralyze thought and praxis, Schey demonstrates that the irreducibility of the figural is precisely what renders impasse an impossibility, even when bringing things to a halt is what might be most desired.
Following Schey’s lead, Kristina Mendicino’s “Of No Moment” directs us to another feature of language that has been much discussed in deconstructive writing: the structure of iterability that makes the occurrence of anything whatsoever necessarily a recurrence as well. As confident as we may be in our grasp of Jacques Derrida’s lessons about singularity and repetition, Mendicino’s essay offers much to unsettle us. How, for example, can iterability itself be established, or for that matter denied, if such a gesture renders fictive the very terms that condition this structure of language? In an extended meditation on the far-reaching and vertiginous implications of these dynamics, especially with regard to temporality, Mendicino exposes the untimely impasses that come to pass in writing. Rather than engaging directly with the texts of Derrida, she retraces the turns and detours through which Friedrich Nietzsche, Maurice Blanchot, and Robert Musil confront the errancy, anachronism, and forgetfulness that recurrence entails. “There may be no getting beyond recurrence,” as Mendicino explains in her conclusion, “and no end to citing that which will have been said of it.” Nevertheless, her essay suggests that this condition is less an impasse than a passage that permits countless traversals across what could be called “the moment of no moment.”
While Mendicino queries what happens when something is said to come to pass, Jan Mieszkowski’s “En Passant” asks what comes to pass when someone claims to make a remark “in passing.” What does such a calculatedly flippant emphasis on the incidental nature of an instance of language entail for the distinction between the incidental and the essential, and what implications might such a language of passing bear for traditional methods (derived from the Greek meta-hodos, the “meta-path”) and methodological paradigms? Mieszkowski’s article begins with a reading of Michael Kohlhaas, the same Kleist novella that informs Kuiken’s discussion of insurrection. While Kuiken’s analysis concentrates on the protagonist’s extended quest for justice, Mieszkowski reveals that the opening incident that sets this quest in motion rests on a discourse of passes and passports that sends Kohlhaas into an impasse of perpetual passing. The second part of the text—which puns delightfully on pass-words throughout (even rivaling Lee Edelman’s punny reading of Hitchcock’s The Birds in No Future)—turns to the work of Derrida, whose attempts to break from the methodological paths of metaphysics leads him to develop a notion of what Mieszkowski terms “passing language.” Focusing on Derrida’s explicit discussions of aporia and impasse, as well as a number of remarks that Derrida himself makes explicitly “in passing,” Mieszkowski shows how language en passant comes to name the impossible necessity of differentiating incidental utterances from everything else. His argument thus recalls Derrida’s early work on the distinction between the marginal and the central, yet it also illustrates how the seemingly privileged slogans of Derrida’s later work, in particular “democracy to come,” gain their power through their conflicted status as both weighty and inconsequential utterances that are made (in Derrida’s words) “always as if in passing.”
In “Passing Impasse,” the final essay of the issue, Anne-Lise François interrogates how the figure of trespassing has shaped ecological thought. Although environmental harm is often imagined in terms of an invisible line that human activity must not pass, such figuration reiterates the logic of enclosure whereby previously used wastes and woodlands are externalized as unmarked “nature” in order to insist on their disposability to capitalist inscription and exchange. “Passing Impasse” seeks to thread a way out of this impasse. The opening sections of the essay—which is structured as a series of stages or stagioni (seasons in Italian)—outline the contradictions that define capitalism’s seemingly limitless ability to capture human and nonhuman life forms, as François gleans resources from Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, Sigmund Freud’s concept of Besetzung or “cathexis,” and Marilyn Strathern’s anthropological work in Papa New Guinea. The essay then turns to the poetry of John Clare, who not only protests enclosure but enacts a poetics in which the boundaries of line and sentence are shifted and reversed, much like the empirical boundaries of common rights usages were seasonally shifted and routinely crossed. Pursuing other poetic modes of passing that mime commoning practices as well as those that register the consequences of enclosure, François proceeds to offer deft readings of passages from Charles Baudelaire, Rainer Maria Rilke, and William Wordsworth, all of which are set in relation to Rachel Carson’s account of the pervasiveness of environmental damage. While most readers will be familiar with these canonical passages, François renders them remarkably fresh and ends with a surprising, and persuasive, suggestion: that Wordsworth favors the preposition along because it enables a haptic mode of tracing akin to the once-collective practice of “beating the bounds.”
There is no single guiding thread that runs through The Point of Impasse. The eight essays that follow engage a wide range of different authors and arguments. Each sets out its own stakes and terms, and no consensus is reached about either the function or import of impasse, let alone its definition. Nonetheless, between these works you will find many connections, places of overlap, and above all a basis for future conversations. If you look hard enough, you may even find a few points of impasse.