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Authenticities East and West
March 30 - April 1, 2001

I Write, Therefore I Am: Writing as an Experience of Authenticity in Modernity and Postcoloniality
Chun-yen Chen (
Department of Comparative Literature, Cornell University

For Heidegger, what constitutes authentic Being is an anxiety over the experience of uncanniness, that is, a feeling of not-being-at-home (in a community that may or may not exist). Some Heideggerian philosophers have pushed the line further by contending that such an uncanny experience is foremost and inevitably a linguistic one (by "Heideggerian" I include those who write in response to Heidegger's system in one form or another). Emmanuel Levinas, for instance, argues that it is language that maintains the relationship between the same and the other; in other words, it is language that grounds what he considers an ethical experience. Maurice Blanchot sees literary writing as the ultimate form of authentic life. For him, the question of writing borders on questions of possibility and history in general, in that it addresses the relation between the one and the other.

What this paper seeks to examine is the epistemological divergence and convergence between modernity and postcoloniality. One devil that (post)coloniality constantly has to fight is the secondariness of existence it is assigned vis-à-vis colonial modernity. This paper will examine if colonial modernity itself is not always already traversed by a self-crisis, by the sense of uncanniness that Heidegger tries to manifest in his concept of authenticity. I will use Baudelaire's poetry to address this question. Then, I will discuss a contemporary writer from Taiwan, Chu Tien-wen, to examine the stakes of authenticity in the postcolonial condition. More specifically, I will examine the possibility of an ethics of writing in face of the uncanny authenticity in both modernity and postcoloniality. I will analyze Baudelaire's three "lesbo" poems to see how the male poet has to give up his maleness and poet-ness to write about his lesbian poetic personae and what this may mean in terms of "the ethics of writing." By the same token, the Taiwanese novel I will draw on also manifests an anxious concern for the other in face of the crisis of community an "ethics" manifested in nothing other than the practice of writing.

This paper seeks to examine what it is like to "be" in both colonial modernity and postcoloniality, what it is like to "write" in colonial modernity and postcoloniality, and, above all, how writing in both epistemes may inform the ethical way of the authentic Being.

Chun-yen Chen is a Ph. D. candidate in Comparative Literature at Cornell University. Her interests include postcolonial theory, twentieth-century Anglophone literature, contemporary Chinese literature from Taiwan, literary theory, and psychoanalysis. Already published, she is working on a dissertation entitled Community by Way of Writing, Community by Way of Death: Exigency of Community in the Postcolonial Condition.

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