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Erik S. Roraback, The Power of the Impossible: On Community and the Creative Life

Alresford: Iff Books, 2018, 384 p. ISBN: 978-1-78555-149-5. £17.99
Ian JAMES
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Erik S. Roraback, The Power of the Impossible: On Community and the Creative Life. Alresford: Iff Books, 2018, 384 p. ISBN: 978-1-78555-149-5. £17.99

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1It is entirely fitting that Erik Roraback’s book on community and the creative life should have as its greatest strength its own creative and highly original style, vision, and power of comparative perspective and synthesis. The vision and comparative perspective are broad indeed bringing together a wide range of canonical theoretical, philosophical, and literary figures and texts as well as popular culture references, specifically from the world of tennis. Thus Spinoza, Gilles Deleuze, and Žižek jostle side by side in one chapter, Jean-Luc Nancy, Giorgio Agamben, and Maurice Blanchot in another, then Nancy and Henry James in yet another as other chapters extend the range further with discussions of Walter Benjamin, James Joyce, Georges Bataille, Ralph Ellison and Dante, thereby offering the basis for the discussions in the book’s concluding three chapters of tennis and the career of Ivan Lendl. Along the way a plethora of other references come into play: Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Freud, Heidegger, Adorno, Levinas, Hardt and Negri, Esposito, Stiegler, and many others, including figures drawn from popular literary culture and elsewhere.

2Given this breadth of reference and engagement, and given the largely autonomous and stand-alone character of the seven chapters devoted to what Roraback calls ‘élite culture energies’, it would be easy for this undertaking to lose focus, coherence, or depth and fall prey to the centrifugal forces of its own creative and comparative élan. And yet Roraback’s book avoids this outcome through its ability to make intuitive links or parallels and, above all, through its focus on the central theme of creative life and what he comes to call (de)creativity. This theme is set up very well in the first chapter and in its discussion of Spinoza and Deleuze which allows him to elaborate an initial outline of the ‘paradigm of life’ understood as a ‘joyous and complex intersubjective communal process and space with sites for the articulation of active and moral-ethical agency’ (58). The central and consistent focus of the book, therefore, will be the notion of ‘a life process of knowledge, meaning, and creative value’ and this is the synthesising perspective which allows all the disparate theoretical, philosophical, and cultural perspectives that team within this polymorphous work to resonate with each in something like a unity, one which allows its disparate parts a degree of free play but which does not allow them to fly apart into incoherence. What is at stake here is an economy of life that is shared, exceeds the limits of individuated subjects, and is immanent within worldly existence rather than being determined or over-coded by the realm of worldly possibility and power. The stakes of the book, then, are immediately political as Roraback seeks, across stretches of ‘high’ theory and popular cultures those resources and energies that may allow for the cultivation of lives and communities that would resist, or live otherwise than, the prescriptions and life-forms dictated by global capital and neo-liberal orthodoxy. It is within this cultural-political context that the force of the ‘de’ in ‘(de)creativity’ is to be understood insofar as it ‘designates a more refined analysis or notion of a positive creation in a destructive world of overproduction’ (168). It is also within this context that the ‘power of the impossible’ should be understood. The community evoked here is not one of worldly identity, possibility and determination or enclosure, but rather that of immanent life that exceeds the immediately possible but which, as impossible, needs to be activated or possibilized in creative gestures and communal life forms. Whether it be Nancy’s ‘inoperative community’, Bataille’s ‘impossible’ or the various comportments and relations discerned in James, Joyce, Agamben, Benjamin, Dante, Ellison, and, yes, tennis and the career of Ivan Lendl, it is always this possibility of bringing the impossible into the sphere of the possible that is at stake. The futural aspiration, then, is the creation of new forms of life that would counter the deadening forces of capital and Roraback seeks to discern glimmers of such forms across the pages of The Power of the Impossible.

3This approach certainly pays off and makes for a highly stimulating and thought-provoking read whose multiplicity of connections and insights could not be achieved in any other manner. At times the limits of this can be discerned when the swiftness of engagement leaves one wanting more differentiation or nuance in detail or, as on one occasion, when this swiftness yields an error of fact that more careful editorial intervention or review would have helped to avoid. So in the substantive discussion of The Experience of Freedom in chapter three the author refers to this work as originally having been Nancy’s doctoral thesis supervised by Paul Ricœur (96). Nancy’s 1973 thesis supervised by Ricœur was, like The Experience of Freedom, devoted to Kant, but this later work was in fact his doctorat d’État and was supervised by Gérard Granel. This is significant because Granel, unlike Ricœur, was very influential on Nancy (via his work on ontological equivocation in Kant) and on Derrida (Granel coined the term ‘deconstruction’ in his translation of Heidegger’s ‘Abbau’) as well much later on Bernard Stiegler (whom he supervised whilst the latter was still in prison for armed robbery). There is always a risk, then, that such breathless breadth that one finds in Roraback’s book can lead to avoidable errors of this sort. Yet again, the benefits of this comparative and synthetic approach and the creative insights this yields across vastly differing contexts might be lost if the scope were more restricted.

4More than anything a book such as this makes the argument, indispensable and of the greatest importance today, that the challenges facing the globe and its human and non-human populations need to be faced by drawing on the resources of life itself in order to counter all those prevailing forces that would oppress or destroy life, and that, indeed, are destroying life relentlessly and inexorably. It is in this context that the placing alongside each with the other of theory and popular cultural forms is so important. If the forces of creativity are to be located as much in the achievement and comportment Ivan Lendl’s career as they are to be found in the committed non-academic writing of Benjamin or Bataille, or the more officially philosophical discourses of Nancy, Agamben, and Stiegler, then the takeaway insight is that, as Blanchot would say, experience is the sole authority, and it is in the realm of experience, of lived life, that community, a creative commons, and new communal forms of knowledge, and of global co-existence are to be found. Roraback’s book points the way to this insight in a highly original and provocative manner.

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Référence électronique

Ian JAMES, « Erik S. Roraback, The Power of the Impossible: On Community and the Creative Life »E-rea [En ligne], 19.1 | 2021, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2021, consulté le 26 janvier 2022. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/erea/12764 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/erea.12764

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Ian JAMES

University of Cambridge

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