Month: March 2016

Notational, No. 18

I really believe that brotherhood is what makes a man human. If I owe God a human life, this is where I fall down. “Man liveth not by Self alone but in his brother’s face. . . . Each shall behold the Eternal Father and love and joy abound.” When the preachers of dread tell you that others only distract you from metaphysical freedom then you must turn away from them. The real and essential question is one of our employment by other human beings and their employment by us. Without this true employment you never dread death, you cultivate it. And consciousness when it doesn’t clearly understand what to live for, what to die for, can only abuse and ridicule itself.

♦ Saul Bellow, Herzog

The body is not a solitary fact. The system of interrelated organs that pulse and prompt action, which motivates reciprocal engagement, is only distinguished through interrelation of an external order. Other bodies are necessary for our own identities to be. This reality asserts itself from any direction you might approach to validate your own facticity. We are generated out of relationships. Think of the vast heritage of meetings that have occurred to beget each individual now present on the surface of the earth. And the continuity of our somatic heritage is reproduced in the vital need for contact and communication between bodies, in order to assert the singularity of the human self. We need each other as much as we have needed our ancestors.

There is another body that needs to be considered when an individual contemplates the extensions and limits of its own awareness. It is constructed of a virtual anatomy that has come into being through the genesis, transmission, and reception of what has been assessed as culture. Multiply coded, inter-relatable, ever changing, and fiercely compelling, it has grown out of that primal activity of naming things as well as their actions. The corpus of culture inhabits the activities that have accrued (and are accruing) between us. It transcends the limits of any solitary person, any one that exists or has existed. Each mind is the product of many minds.

We may only depart for regions unknown from the shores of collective achievement. Freedom requires a community to, in fact, be a state of being. Eschew the multitude! Fly to the metaphysical hinterlands of self-discovery! Climb the mountain and dig yourself into the summit! Cultivate the transcendent spiral of a featureless infinity! It denies the work that goes into making this radical undertaking significant. We are, none of us, self-corroborating entities. Each must send messages to each if there is to be a dialogue to emulate in the mind. A body that does not articulate and contend with other bodies has nothing to articulate or contend to itself.

herzog letter


An Old Derridian Exercise

Let me trace an origin. “Trace” is a privileged word. As a verb it is how I am opening this piece and using it to set an intention and a process. The word denotes a nuanced spectrum of definitions, and these definitions superimpose upon one another to produce what then becomes complex. Possible readings proliferate. Exploring some of the more provocative connections that are inhered within trace, and by tracing that trace as an action of writing—as it unfolds and complicates itself through elaboration—will render something complete but unfinished.

Intimately and inextricably linked to movement, both figurative and literal, the first entry under “trace” in the OED defines it as “[t]o take one’s course, make one’s way; to proceed, pass, go, travel, tread.” As I trace, I “go.” The word is thus implicated in the progression of a journey, one without reference to genesis or telos, but instead simply a functional activity of “proceeding,” or “making one’s way.” This sense of the word dates to the formative years of the modern English language itself, 1400 CE, and it forms a core, a kernel of denotation. The word is inscribed with the connotations of taking action and progressing towards an uncertain outcome; but other permutations are quickly overlaid like a semitransparent tissue and further refine its meaning.

When we encounter trace’s second OED definition, it is more lighthearted: “[t]o pace or step in dancing; to tread a measure; to dance.” This is a different set of implications altogether, though not incompatible with the first. There is suddenly an element of grace included in the word: a co-ordination; choreography. To trace is not simply to travel, but can also be a kind of movement with its mind on form, on the intricacies of “treading” some way that is recognized as premeditated—a “dance” implies repetition; gestures that might be predicted and anticipated. Here we are introduced to the idea that to trace is not to perform an act that is entirely original, but that to do so might actually be to imitate or to copy.


So when we are told that to trace is also “to follow, pursue (instructions, example, etc.)” this elaboration can be read in such a way as to amplify the word again. Tracing may not be original in the sense that some source precedes the activity, some kind of a plan or a demonstration, but there is nothing to say that this “following” has ever been done before. To trace could conceivably be to be first, a kind of originary emulation or performance of something that has previously only existed as an outlined boundary, a stricture which has been delineated but never honoured; or a path never followed once blazed. To trace might very well to be to take the first step towards the production of a tradition or a rule, just as easily as it could be enacting a repetition that is tried and true; an action that contains no surprise or uncertainty, a rote presentation of the established.

But by tracing you might yet reverse the direction of your action. Rather than being derived from you might be driven or drawn towards. Yet, another meaning of the word is “[t]o discover, find out, or ascertain by investigation; to find out step by step; to search out.” Tracing becomes the activity of the sleuth, of the inspector, of the scholar; it is a peering into things, a discernment based on evidence. It remains a kind of following, a dogging of hints or what might be derived as instructions, but there is novelty there, for nearby is an implication in this understanding of the word that denotes that the knowledge gleaned, though always there to be “discovered,” was either forgotten or unarticulated before. To trace, in this sense, is to enact a revelation by increments. As I trace this trace the whole of the project becomes more fully described.

The OED recognises that there has been an element of ambiguity within the word’s origin from the outset. The dictionary’s entry on the etymology of “trace” says that “[t]he primary meaning of the verb was apparently ‘to proceed in a line, course, or track,’” but this was by no means absolutely clear as “[t]he early sense-development in Old French and Middle English,” the identified linguistic sources for the modern English word itself, “is not very clear, and some of the senses attach themselves immediately to trace [the noun] in its sense of ‘mark left by anything moving, footprint’, itself a derivative of the [verb] in its earlier senses.” This close interchange between “trace” as a verb and “trace” as a noun remains, which makes it so much more evocative in writing when that duality can be exploited. “We must begin wherever we are and the thought of the trace,” writes Derrida, “has already taught us that it was impossible to justify a point of departure absolutely.” He, quite rightly, questions the implications of what he means by employing this bifurcated word, apparently naming a thing; but does he entirely exclude the action? Or are he and I counting on an inherent polyvalence to evoke a plurality of action and intent, or objective and process? The answers lie in the outline of the word.

When Not to Move

Countries and flags

Even the cosmopolis can feel confining.

I had harboured aspirations of striking out beyond the precincts of my ostensibly humble region and transferring my base of operations to somewhere fundamentally different; somewhere founded on a different design, a local perhaps perpetuated and driven by an ideology of a dissimilar tenor. The trajectory I envisioned, even from the point of my recent journey’s genesis—that first degree—took me up and out of my limited experience to environments diverse and challenging. Goodbye, Toronto! Goodbye, goodbye. Because really, how many jolly adventures can one have in the same local? Won’t the familiarity of a well-worn home lead to stagnation? Doesn’t the well run dry after ceaselessly drawing from it, year after year? And quite honestly, no one wants to be a parochial academic when the world beckons to ambition so compulsively. When you see yourself climbing up onto the shoulders of giants you imagine that giant standing at the epicentre of an unequivocally vital site, somewhere where they’ll see your banner snapping in the troposphere and it will mean something; the little people far afield might be driven to rally or flee.

Possibly, I exaggerate. If not, it’s still an indulgent fantasy. I came late to this.

I phoned a dear friend once many years ago, and I caught her at an unusual time. Her voice was thick with emotion, and as we talked she came to seem genuinely depressed. “My darling,” I said to her, “whatever is the matter?”

“Oh, it’s ridiculous,” she answered.

“Tell me,” I pressed.

“I’ve just finally realized that I’m never going to be a pop star.”

Hearing her articulate this epiphany was a minor detonation. There was a clear and lucid origin of perspective in its essence. Something had sunken in.

The allure of this particular pipe dream was relatively foreign to me. At that point in my life I saw myself as too unconventional, and too contrary, to be suited for any kind of status that relied upon mass appeal. The brand of success I entertained in my own reveries took the shape of a loving peer group and a chance to make a living creatively, but quietly and out of the way; and not so much out of pragmatism but rather an untrustworthy orientation toward brute reality. However, my friend’s realization, and what she was coming to terms with (however tongue-in-cheek) addressed a fundamental mythology that motivates a certain quantity of every project of self-determination. The spectre of destiny draws many of us forward; and it is seldom a modest phantasm that does the work within the formative imagination. Around the corner of the everyday is anticipation for a revelatory moment of discovery, a juncture where the avatars of forces which drive the world suddenly take notice, attend, and carry you off—transmute you from your station and install you within the charmed sphere of the relevant, respected, and adored.

The permutations of these fantasies are, of course, endless; and they drive the compulsive magnetism of celebrity. The public regards, but it also projects; and that delirious projection is a lot of what spurs much of the everyday toil through mediocrity. I suppose it’s most especially acute in the young, before the force of raw statistics begins to wear at your consciousness. However, at some point you have to mourn your chances.

I mourned early. I recovered.

And my ambition has evolved rather than degraded: I haven’t worn down—I’ve sharpened. I’ve fine tuned. This older self I have inherited, thanks to the inexorable dilation of time, entertains much grander designs than what my prematurely pessimistic ego made room for when I thought I was headed nowhere fast. I had always known that I would never be a pop star, but at some point I had become actually optimistic about the prospects of a more modest luminary position in the firmament. My dream machine has been steadily stoked these past few years, and where I would have been familiar tracing the inner contours of my psyche and discerning only resignation, instead I have adumbrated the shape and substance of actual desire; powerful objectives motivated. This is genuinely a surprise.

I blame positive reinforcement: the continuous encouragement of multiple successes after facing difficult odds.

So when my ambition to breach the national barrier surrounding me was forestalled last year, and my long range plans ran afoul of the very real odds stacked against me, I recalled my friend, anguished on the other end of the phone line. This will never be was stitched into the fabric of the sky, and I felt the destitution of a lofty dream aborted.

Never is a brutal oblivion; but never is also hard to ensure. In a universe that thrives on the proliferation of possibilities, of aleatory contingencies and powerfully interlaced probabilities, never is almost as unlikely as always. Not this one, no this time, is so much more palatable, and so much more credible, than never.

The dream can stand some adjustment. I do not need to be stationed in America to realize my ambitions. The well, here in Canada, in Toronto, has not run dry; and whatever arguments I thought made it imperative to shuck this city like an old skin have lost a lot of their validity under detailed scrutiny. Good things can come from familiar territories. Progress without movement can be an exciting way to examine personal morphology. One can trace new outlines over the old shapes on a map. The iterations might create a compelling palimpsest, a record and new manuscript simultaneously. The core of the exercise is solid, is estimable; familiar but still challenging. There are newnesses to learn from right here as much as there.

So I stay. So I commit to inscribing my mark with a fine point on a site that has asked me to use its surface. There are other ways to transcend boundaries and reach beyond one’s original sphere. The world becomes progressively smaller when it consists of continents of text. It can be nice to be at home and to travel without moving.

Fragmentary, No. 10


~ About stupidity . . .

From a musical game heard each week on FM and which seems “stupid” to him, he realizes this: stupidity is a hard and indivisible kernel, a primitive: no way of decomposing it scientifically (if a scientific analysis of stupidity were possible, TV would entirely collapse). What is it? A spectacle, an aesthetic fiction, perhaps a hallucination? Perhaps we want to put ourselves into the picture? It’s lovely, it takes your breath away, it’s strange; and about stupidity, I am entitled to say no more than this: that it fascinates me. Fascination is the correct feeling stupidity must inspire me with (if we reach the point of speaking the name): it grips me (it is intractable, nothing prevails over it, it takes you in an endless hand-over-hand race).

♦ Roland Barthes, Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes

All Things Separate

indoor cloud

At times it can be hard to know what you’re looking at. Certain bodies have boundaries that are indistinct. An object identifiable but undefinable describes an inordinate range of phenomena if enough scrutiny is focused on categorical detail. Where is the limit of a cloud? How can you mark the border of an ocean? Classification and identification, as Nietzsche has written, can be described as metaphor based upon a metaphor. If the structure of reality is founded on the premise of recognizing the interplay between differences, surely there is a way to definitively state that one thing is not another, that the compartments are separate, that the world is an aggregate of isolated things piled limit to limit against one another, touching but sacrosanct.

We end up having to build artificial walls to contain the indistinct; boxes real or virtual but equipped with windows wide enough to observe what must not bleed into the immediate surroundings: a mountain, a city, a river, an intersection, a being, a book, a network, a cell, a molecule, an atom. Things irreducible? Things indivisible? Whole things, complete things, individual things?

Illusion. Deception. Conceit. Anyone who focuses their attention on the apparent ontology of things can recognise that they all exist in translation, transition, and transformation. The interrelations of all components make up the mutable and mutating structures that combine and shift to produce the fabric of existence.

I have felt isolated and apart for the past number of months. The project that began as a journey through a process, one punctuated with landmarks and milestones, was interrupted; and it has been an effort not to flounder; a herculean labour to remain connected to the give and take of a life that cannot (or will not) exist amputated from meaning or purpose. The work I have been committed to is the work of imbricating the apparently distinct, and the redrawing of provisional boundaries—walls with windows—around hybrid results so that correlative interrelations might be observed. This is the business of theorizing about the world. This is the complicated dance of pattern recognition in the play of cause and effect; complex systems giving rise to identifiable marvels. I want to study culture. I want to continue to study culture—and in a community, in a network that complicates the boundaries of where one thing or individual begins and another ends.

All this is to say that I have some idea of what I’m looking at when I stare at the letter saying I have been invited to begin my PhD. It may be a distinct thing but it is connected to a universe of generative inaugurations, influences, and reciprocal involvements that combine to make it what it is. This is the beginning of the end of a long journey, and though everything that I base my sense of purpose on might only be a sophisticated metaphor, to say “only” is a trivialization that belies the monumental nature of identifying a thing that implies another thing, one which lies closer to an inexpressible truth. Let us all be part of the attempt to identify what it is that we see, if only to share the joy of recognition with companion beings. Let us exchange perceptions and complicate the beginning and end of the singular object.