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Ab initio: On Openings, Incipits, & First Lines

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Organizer: Kristina Mendicino

Co-Organizer: Dominik Zechner

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Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph.
    T.S. Eliot
“In the beginning”—“bereshit”—“en archê”—“im Anfang”—“en tête”—: each word of commencement already comes too late for the beginning it would designate and thereby catch up with, always already in the midst of the start. Should these opening words be any indication, any incipit to speak of speaks itself of and as its incapacity to initiate. But whereas the theological presuppositions underlying such announcements of a word in the beginning would nonetheless affirm an archê, at least in principle, the opening words of those texts that place the notion of an archê in question expose the an-archic character of speaking. When, for example, the narrator of Maurice Blanchot’s récit, The One Who Was Standing Apart from Me, begins, “Je cherchai, cette fois, à l'aborder” (“I sought, this time, to approach him [or: it]”), the initial event of nearing another—a border—comes to nothing, not least because these first words to follow the blank margins of the text also say, as Jacques Derrida has observed, that “nothing has, properly, taken place.” How, then, to address a situation in which  “il y a la tête trancée de la Première Figure” (“there is the cut-off head of the First Figure”), as René Char once wrote? How to speak from and of the absence of any assured or assurable commencement? This seminar seeks approach what could be called—albeit in a sense that differs from its initial one—: ab initio.
Possible problems to be addressed in 20-minute contributions include the condition of possibility of first sentences, their peculiar place in the structure of textual organization, the specific promise they seem to give yet also withhold. What is it about a first sentence that that turns us on and off? What do first sentences know about the sentences that will follow? How do they fall short of the worlds they vow to open up? What endows them with the power to initiate and thus become connected with other sentences?
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