Beckett, Negativity and Cultural Value



Russell Smith, University of Adelaide



In awarding him the Nobel Prize, the Swedish Academy praised Samuel Beckett's work for having "transmuted the destitution of modern man into his exaltation". To anyone familiar with Beckett's writing, it would seem that this transmutation was in fact performed by the Swedish Academy, recuperating a bitterly negative, anti-humanist and even misanthropic body of work as a paradoxically affirmative humanism.

This paper is an attempt to assess the question of value, and in particular, the problem of negativity, both in Beckett's work, and in the reception of Beckett's work.

Firstly, I want to examine Georges Bataille's attempts to theorise a form of absolute negativity - as sacrifice, loss, expenditure. Barbara Herrnstein Smith argues that Bataille's project falls victim to what she calls "generalized positivity": the tendency of all expressions of negativity to be recuperable as a positivity. Jean Luc Nancy argues that Bataille's conception of sacrifice is always necessarily open to appropriation as transcendence, revelation, meaning. Both arguments contend that Bataille's argument fails to sustain a notion of absolute negativity outside the workings of a general economy of value.

However, as John Guillory argues, following Baudrillard, the notion of "absolute value" is an oxymoron. Value is an inherently economic, and relative, term, and both Bataille and Beckett show themselves to be acutely conscious of this. Similarly, according to a recent argument by Alec McHoul, the enabling condition of a cultural object is its appropriability, its openness to "misuse". McHoul's model of cultural economy takes "misappropriation" to be the norm: the very definition of culture becomes its tendency to undermine absolutes, to contaminate "pure" identities. In the case of Beckett, "literature" functions within the general cultural economy as a "moral technology" which recuperates absolute negativity as relative positivity . If "literature" functions as a cultural technology of positivity, any notion of a "literature of negation" would be a contradiction in terms.

 Thus I want to read Beckett's Worstward Ho as constructing a literary aesthetic of negation which is precisely conscious of its recuperability as positivity, and which both resists, and silently depends upon, such a process. Instead of, yet again, unproblematically reading Beckett in terms of failure and negativity, I want to examine the extent of Beckett's complicity in the Swedish Academy's tedious transmutation of "the destitution of modern man into his exaltation".



Samuel Beckett's writing seems to be predicated on a series of negations: not only do his fictional and dramatic works relentlessly undermine literary conventions of narrative, plot, character, action, identity, sequence and closure, but this process of negation extends even to the signifying possibilities of language. The self-cancelling structure of many of Beckett's later prose works, "affirmations and negations invalidated as uttered" (The Unnamable 3), and the wordlessness of the late theatre works, seem to enact a philosophy of linguistic nihilism, a repudiation not only of literary conventions but of language itself, a reaching towards the silence which would be its only true expression. And aside from these more formal negations, the fictional world that Beckett's words bring however tentatively into being seems wholly characterised by poverty, decay, pain, isolation, misery, suffering, and a terminal hopelessness relieved only by the odd flash of gallows humour.

As Shira Wolosky puts it, "Beckett's negativity seems one of the few features everyone can affirm of him" (1991: 213).


There is a certain obvious irony, therefore, in the fact that Beckett is widely regarded as one of the major writers of the twentieth century, and that his work has come to occupy a central place in the pantheon of official culture. This tension between negativity and cultural value is nowhere more apparent than in the citation of the Swedish Academy which, in awarding Beckett the Nobel Prize in 1969, commended "a body of work that, in new forms of fiction and the theatre, has transmuted the destitution of modern man into his exaltation" (Wasson 1987: 68). In his presentation speech Karl Ragnar Gierow of the Academy noted that Beckett's fundamental pessimism nevertheless "houses a love of mankind that grows in understanding as it plumbs further into the depths of abhorrence, a despair that has to reach the utmost bounds of suffering to discover that compassion has no bounds" (Wasson 1987: 68).

It's probably wiser not to comment on "the love that plumbs the depths of abhorrence", but "the transmutation of destitution into exaltation" is a common gesture in the interpretation and evaluation of Beckett's work. If everyone agrees on Beckett's negativity, nearly everyone also agrees that this negativity can paradoxically be revealed as a positivity after all.

In this essay I wish to explore the relationship between the extreme negativity of Beckett's aesthetics, and the ways in which his work is accorded positive cultural value. Firstly, I wish to examine Beckett's aesthetics of negation in a work which self-consciously announces itself as an exploration of the structure of negativity, Worstward Ho. Secondly, I want to contrast two readings of Beckett, which relate his strategies of negation, on the one hand to negative theology, and on the other to Georges Bataille's concept of transgression. Thirdly, I draw on the theories of Ian Hunter to suggest that Beckett's aesthetics of negation actually has much in common with the contemporary institutional formation of the individual subject. Comparing Bataille and Beckett, I suggest that Beckett's indifference is the only logical defence against the general tendency of the cultural economy to recuperate all negativity.


Part One



If Beckett's late prose works enact a progressive reduction of language, thenWorstward Ho is the end point of that reduction, a prose stripped down to a series of truncated statements which seem calculated to leave the smallest possible "stain upon the silence" (Bair 1990: 681). Although I can only go over this briefly here, it's worth looking at a short passage from the beginning ofWorstward Ho (1983) to examine its delicate tactics of negation. It begins:

    On. Say on. Be said on. Somehow on. Till nohow on. Said nohow on.

    Say for be said. Missaid. From now say for be missaid.

    Say a body. Where none. No mind. Where none. That at least. A place. Where none. For the body. To be in. Move in. Out of. Back into. No. No out. No back. Only in. Stay in. On in. Still.

    All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. (p.7)

There a number of things worth noticing here. Obviously the stunted syntax is a deliberate impoverishment of ordinary language, but the impersonality of the imperative "Say on", which is then "corrected" to the passive "Be said on" points to a deliberate emptying out of agency or identity in the speaker. Where Beckett's earlier works present a voice straining to distance itself from the pronoun "I", Worstward Ho is an attempt to present an utterance devoid of either a speaker or an addressee. Thus later on the question is asked:

    Whose words? Ask in vain. Or not in vain if say no knowing. No saying. No words for him whose words. Him? One. No words for one whose words. One? It. No words for it whose words. Better worse so. (p.19)

Similarly, if language is here stripped of its occasion as a speech act, so too it is stripped of its referential function in the insistence that all saying is a "mis-saying". Even where language seems to create by decree a body and a place "where none", this attempt at designation is "never worse failed" (p.9). Indeed, the only positivity the text can extract from language is to push that failure to its limit.

However, in the formulation of an attempt to "fail better", the text demonstrates that any statement of negativity is always immediately open to recuperation as a positivity, since to fail completely would constitute a kind of success. Thus Beckett carefully delineates a negativity which would stop just short of the absolute negativity of nothingness, at an "unlessenable least" (p.32), an "unworsenable worst" (p.33), a "meremost minimum" (p.9) that is "better than nothing" (p.27) because it is "a little better worse than nothing so" (p.23). Beckett's play with the polarities of negative and positive value, of worst and best, most and least, demonstrates a lucid awareness of the slippery reversibility of statements of negativity and non-value.


Part Two



Although Worstward Ho is perhaps one of the most extreme and thoroughgoing instances of Beckett's negative aesthetics, it inevitably falls victim to cultural recuperation as a positivity. One of the more obvious instances of this recuperation is its promotion in the marketplace as a desirable commodity. The back cover blurb claims that: "As so often before, Mr Beckett has created magic, transforming the emptiest of voids and insubstantiality of material into a whole unforgettable world that will live with the reader and become part of his own world of experience". Steven Connor comments that "the table of conversion instanced here governs much if not most criticism of Beckett, which has learnt to give every extremity of dilapidation in his work a positive reflex of value" (1992: 82).

Connor offers a subtle analysis of the problem of recuperation with regard toWorstward Ho, but before I move on to his reading, I want to examine another recent analysis of Beckett's aesthetics of negation.

Shira Wolosky reads Beckett's negativity specifically in terms of its "linguistic nihilism": "a negation of language that seems to extend not only to the world which language describes, but to repudiate language itself" (1991: 213). Wolosky traces the origins of this nihilism to "the negative mystic traditions that perhaps of all theologies Beckett's work especially invokes" (p.215).

The central problematic of negative theology is its devotion to the One, the undivided, eternal, unchanging Being of which humans can have only have an intuitive knowledge, since we are inevitably trapped in the limitedness of physical matter. In what is essentially a neo-Platonism, our apprehension of true Being is only possible through a cultivation of interiority, while externality - the body, the senses, temporality, and most importantly, language - is rejected as disguise, distortion, misrepresentation (Wolosky 1991: 216). Wolosky sees this problematic at work in Beckett's Texts for Nothing, which reveal "the persistent denunciation of body, character, figure, voice, language, in the name of an interiority and essentiality before and beyond it" (p.221).

If Beckett's earlier texts can be seen as the paradoxical attempts to utter a true self outside of language, Worstward Ho seems to advance considerably further in this process of obliteration, having dispensed with the structure of speaker and addressee and the possibility of reference, and invoking a state of being which is not nothingness, but in which the temporal world - the world of the body, language, desire - has been abolished.

    Longing that all go. Dim go. Void go. Longing go. Vain longing that vain longing go. (Beckett 1983: 36)

As Wolosky argues, however, the rejection of the limitations of language in the quest for a higher truth risks "repudiating the very conditions which define and make knowledge possible; stripping away the self in order to return to a truer, more essential Unity may instead simply be a mode of self-destruction" (1991: 220). Beckett's work necessarily stops short of this ultimate renunciation; Wolosky sees this as an acceptance that there is no inner self except in the exteriority of language, and thus that Beckett's work finally acknowledges language as a positive force, "as representing our world in all its immanence and actuality", "the generative power of what is as against the realm of what is not" (228).

Steven Connor reads Worstward Ho as an "attempt to push negation to its limit" but finally accepts that:

    there is nothing to guarantee that this ... will not itself be reconfigured as a form of critical or cultural value; indeed, it will be apparent that my own reading here evidently and inescapably predicates value in the play of value and non-value in Worstward Ho. (1992: 89)

Connor is sceptical, however, of what he calls "the metaphor of the limit", which he sees as "itself a vehicle of the dialectical logic that alternates positivity and negativity as positive quantities, allowing one to constitute the denial or surpassing of limits as a heroic negation of a negation" (Connor 1992: 89). And indeed, Beckett's text sedulously avoids the heroics of absolute negation in its asymptotic approach "worstward". Instead, Connor here invokes the work of Georges Bataille, whose project is precisely the effort to discover a form of negativity which escapes the recuperation-as-positivity characteristic of Hegelian dialectics, and which Michel Foucault characterizes as "non-positive affirmation" (Foucault 1997: 36).

Foucault names this form of negativity "transgression", and argues that: "transgression contains nothing negative, but affirms limited being - affirms the limitlessness into which it leaps as it opens this zone to existence for the first time" (1977: 35). This "affirmation of limited being" sounds very much like Wolosky's account of Beckett's acceptance of language "as representing our world in all its immanence and actuality". And in fact, Beckett's asymptotic approach to the limit of language, rooted in the mystic tradition of negative theology, seems to have much in common with the "experience of finitude" (Foucault 1977: 40) that Foucault discerns in Bataille's Inner Experience, and which Elisabeth Arnould describes as Bataille's "mystical a-theology" (Arnould 1996: 93 n.5, see also Derrida 1978: 337 n.36). It seems that the only negativity which escapes the logic of the dialectic is a kind of a-theological mysticism.

Thus Foucault's description of the project of thinking transgressively could equally well be a description of Beckett's work: "Our efforts are undoubtedly better spent in trying to speak of this experience and in making it speak from the depths where its language fails, from precisely the place where words escape it, where the subject who speaks has just vanished" (1977: 40).


Part Three



The recuperation of Beckett's negativity as cultural value turns, I think, on this question of interiority.

Ian Hunter has argued that, since the late nineteenth century, when literacy became virtually a pre-requisite for participation in society, one of the central tasks of institutional education has been the promotion of a sort of self-conscious interiority as part of the formation of autonomous ethical subjects. English literature plays a central role in this, not as the transmission of a set of cultural values, but as a course in aesthetics, where aesthetics is understood as a "practice of the self" (Hunter 1992: 349). Hunter notes four main steps in this process: a denial of and intervention in the individual's "immediate or pleasurable access to literature" (p.350), an incitement to recognize oneself thus as a split subject, an encouragement to heal this division through an aesthetic "work on the self" (p.353), and an orientation of this process towards an unreachable goal of personal and aesthetic reconciliation (p.355).

This structure might be seen as fundamental to the modern experience of cultureper se (all culture, not just official or 'high' culture), according to which an individual's cultural choices are experienced as reflecting a pre-existing selfhood, a dark and silent interiority which nevertheless can only find expression in its manipulations of cultural objects. This experience of a selfhood always slightly beyond or outside language and culture is of course fundamental to Beckett's aesthetics, and Beckett's negations always seem to proceed in the name of an authenticity that is inevitably compromised by its representation in language. But, as Hunter argues, this illusion of interior authenticity is itself the product of language and culture.

Shira Wolosky writes that:

    The Texts for Nothing concede - indeed insist - that language immediately plunges the self into multiplicity and exteriority. But theTexts no less question whether this need compromise the self - indeed, whether outside of this linguistic multiplicity there is any self at all. (1991: 226)

There is an undecidable tension in Beckett's work, I think, between the mystic notion of an essential self or truth (or even nothingness) which is inevitably compromised by its immersion in language and culture, and the materialist notion that the self, including its sensations of compromise, is wholly a product of language and culture. In either case, culture becomes the domain of non-essentiality, so that all of Beckett's most ingenious gestures of negation inevitably become part of the relentless positivity of culture.

From a different perspective, Alec McHoul reflects this view in a recent essay which argues against the idea that cultural objects are definable by criteria of ownership, of 'belonging'. Instead, McHoul argues that:

    cultural objects are marked by the essentiality of their possible dis-ownership... by the fact that they can always come to mean things, to be recognised, to be used, to be known, to be governed, and cared for in at least two (frequently more) different cultural systems, different assemblages of production and recognition. (McHoul 1997: 10-11)

The potential for mis-appropriation is one of the essential characteristics of something becoming-cultural. In terms of "regimes of cultural value" (see Frow 1995: 144), Beckett's work uncontestably belongs to the regime of 'high culture', with its associated institutions and discourses of value. And, as John Frow argues, one of "the particular functions performed by 'high' culture ... may be to reinforce the discrepancy between aesthetic and economic discourses of value, as a way of designating aesthetic - that is, non-economic - value as a marker of status" (p.146).

This disparity between the economic and aesthetic discourses of value is particularly acute in the case of Beckett: although his writing became progressively shorter, more condensed, more uncompromisingly negative, his later works were often first released in expensive limited editions. This process culminated in the publication of Stirrings Still, which appeared in a limited edition of 200 copies at [sterling]1000 each, while the full text was simultaneously available for 25p in The Guardian newspaper (see Connor 1992: 98, and Kermode 1989).

Speaking of the positive economic and aesthetic recuperations of Beckett's work, Steven Connor insists that "there is no way to guarantee against such harvests of value from negativity (and perhaps no reason why one should seek such an absolute guarantee)" (1992: 82).

The "perhaps" here is important, I think. After all, to attempt to preserve Beckett's negativity against the ravages of optimism, to attempt to justify it, would be implicitly to give it a positive value, which of course would renders it useless as negativity. On the other hand, it seems that only through "not seeking a guarantee" against recuperation, that is, through a studiedindifference to value, can one escape, in even the most limited way, the logic of a cultural economy which turns all expressions of negativity into profit.

"Indifference" is of course a central mystical concept, and is associated with a whole ethics of disengagement from the here-and-now. Such saintly indifference is perhaps too much to claim for Beckett (although many do), whose attitude to the persistent recuperations of economic and cultural profit from his work can at best be characterized as ambivalent.

In economic terms, he was ambivalent, since he didn't need the money and often donated the proceeds of his book sales to artist friends in financial hardship. In terms of cultural recognition he was equally ambivalent, persistently (but not always) refusing to discuss his work, but at the same time donating many of his manuscripts to university libraries. The awarding of the Nobel Prize is particularly characteristic. Dreading the intrusion on his privacy, Beckett half-heartedly tried to talk his supporters out of nominating him; having been awarded the prize, he considered rejecting it, but didn't want to be seen to be imitating Sartre; having accepted the prize he refused to pick it up in person, and ended up giving the money away (Cronin 1997: 543-547).

Apart from indifference, the only guarantee against recuperation, the only "absolute negativity", would therefore be one which refuses the cultural altogether. Bataille, in his attempt to formulate such a "sacrifice without reserve" (Bataille 1988: 152), is led to offer the "impossible" example of Rimbaud, who announced his renunciation of poetry and spent the rest his life as a colonialist slave-trader in North Africa. But even Rimbaud's "sacrifice of poetry", his "silent contestation", is of course recuperated by Bataille, who argues that it extends the field of the possible by forcing poets henceforth to "write under the imperative of its impossibility" (Arnould 1996: 93, see also Nancy 1991). They could, of course, not write anything at all, but that is something neither Bataille nor Beckett could quite bring themselves to do.





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Bair, Deidre. Samuel Beckett: A Biography. London: Vintage, 1990.

Bataille, Georges. Inner Experience. Albany: SUNY Press, 1988.

Beckett, Samuel. The Unnamable. New York: Grove, 1958.

----. Worstward Ho. London: John Calder, 1983.

Connor, Steven. "Absolute Rubbish: Cultural Economies of Loss in Freud, Bataille and Beckett". In his Theory and Cultural Value. Oxford: Blackwell, 1992. 57-101.

Cronin, Anthony. Samuel Beckett: The Last Modernist. London: Flamingo, 1997.

Derrida, Jacques. "From Restricted to General Economy: A Hegelianism without Reserve." In Writing and Difference. Trans. Alan Bass. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978.

Foucault, Michel. "Preface to Transgression." Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews. Ed. Donald F. Bouchard. Trans. Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon. Oxford: Blackwell, 1977. 29-52.

Frow, John. Cultural Studies and Cultural Value. Oxford: Clarendon, 1995.

Hunter, Ian. "Aesthetics and Cultural Studies". In Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson and Paula A. Treichler (eds.). Cultural Studies. New York: Routledge, 1992. 347-67.

Kermode, Frank. "Miserable Splendour." (Review of Stirrings Still.)The Guardian, 19 March 1989: 28.

McHoul, Alec. "Ordinary Heterodoxies: Towards a Theory of Cultural Objects."UTS Review 3.2 (1997): 7-22.

Nancy, Jean-Luc. "The Unsacrificeable." Yale French Studies 79 (1991): 20-38.

Wasson, Tyler (ed). Nobel Prize Winners: An H. W. Wilson Biographical Dictionary. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1987.

Wolosky, Shira. "The Negative Way Negated: Samuel Beckett's Texts for Nothing." New Literary History 22 (1991): 213-30.


About the Author

In 1998, Russell Smith was a PhD student at the University of Adelaide, trying to write a thesis on Samuel Beckett and the cultural politics of idleness and indifference.


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