In one of my favorites of your drawings, two Popsicles are talking to each other. One accuses, “You’re more interested in fantasy than reality.” The other responds, “I’m interested in the reality of my fantasy.” Both Popsicles are melting off their sticks.✧ Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts
This reciprocal determination operates elsewhere as well, although by other means and with other aims. It involves a double displacement, which renders a concept plausible or true by pointing to an error and, at the same time, by enforcing belief in something real through a denunciation of the false. The assumption is made that what is not held to be false must be real. Thus, for example, in the past, arguments against ‘false’ gods were used to induce belief in a true God. The process repeats itself today in contemporary historiography: by demonstrating the presence of errors, discourse must pass off as ‘real’ whatever is placed in opposition to the errors. Even though this is logically questionable, it works, and it fools people. Consequently, fiction is deported to the land of the unreal, but the discourse that is armed with the technical ‘know-how’ to discern errors is given the supplementary privilege of prepresenting something ‘real.’ Debates about the reliability of literature as opposed to history illustrate this division.✧ Michel de Certeau, “History: Science and Fiction”
And one of the miners made a speech about capitalism using the analogy that “it’s like, say, a man gives you a lemon tree . . . “ (I think he was possibly Australian—but evidently, living in New Zealand.)
“When do you have the time to pick the lemons? Before or after they are any good? Because having the time available to pick them when they’re ripe—not too hard, and not too pulpy—is not very likely. And what are you going to do with those lemons? Do you think you can turn those lemons into profit or prestige? Not very likely. You don’t have access to the lemon market, which is owned by the man who gave you the tree!”
. . .
It was a good speech. There were slides.
There is no such thing . . . as unstylised—’direct’, ‘pure’, ‘objective’—sensation, perception, conceptualization, description or knowledge. A thought style is a disposition not merely to think or speak of a collective who share a given thought style, certain entities, categories, and connections will be especially salient and ready-to-hand and others less noticeable or invisible. These perceptual-conceptual dispositions are not ‘biases’, a term that suggests disabling distortions of otherwise clear or direct perceptions. Rather, and precisely because of how they constrain cognition, such dispositions enable what we call facts to be known, what we call reality to be brought forth and experienced.✧ Barbara Herrnstein Smith, Scandalous Knowledge: Science, Truth and the Human
One can perhaps say a number of things about style, especially within the contexts of thought. Something that conveys an attitude as well as an orientation toward the world, style is projected as much as it is assumed. Style is performative; and any performance is a risk, as all performances incubate the possibility of failure. There is risk at the heart of adopting or developing any style, as the implications are that style leaves an impression. Style makes a psychic mark—it leaves a trace of its occurrence, of its experience. To encounter a style is to encounter something recognisable, even if it is not understood. That way, or this way, methods of connecting discreet elements into configurations that work together to impress is the foundation of a style. A style bears and references a kind of unity.
But a style is not complete. In the sense of a congruence lacking a sense of finality, style might be reproduced; style might be common or rare; stay might be recondite or facile, but it is unbounded. It may also be replayed, with variation, again and again. Unnoticed if it is lacking or ubiquitous, sometimes alarming or enraging if it is alien, a minimum of style might register, but a surfeit threatens to lose its distinction and transition from style to standard.
What makes identifying thought styles so difficult is that they are only encountered as such during rare periods of a person’s life: transitional times; traumatic times; times when we are marshalled by forces that compel or propel us to defend, adapt, or displace. Generally, the frequency we experience them becomes more and more uncommon as we age. As we shift less, learn less, habituate our tastes and the range of our adventures less, so too does the scope of styles we might appreciate or adopt diminish. Intrinsically, style becomes a signature, a calling card, and an extension of one’s own expression to the world at large. Extrinsically, a style arrays with others not of its kind as a spectrum of codes, to which are attached affects and responses equally personal from each to everyone else.
Style may be the hallmark of any organized human exercise, material or immaterial; but it is not an expendable feature of our reality, as the many realities that orbit and overlap throughout our lives define our place and our experience. To think a certain way may seem anything from honorable, to transgressive, to abominable, but the human enterprise is composed of a heterogeneity that permeates all conception and expression from our centre out to the barely coalescing fringes of our species’ margins.
Change itself must be recognizable for it to be registered as such. Without familiar features to foreground or frame that which alters or mutates, change cannot possibly be acknowledged. Wholesale change, a redefinition of all parameters, complete redefinition, is impossible—such a thing would be synonymous with apocalypse: actual death and rebirth. If everything that is available to know is suddenly new, there is no utility at all to anything that you may recall. The true tabula rasa would be a state of anguish and absolute alienation. Even at birth, we are not without bequest from previous iterations of our own living paradigms. Within our bodies patterns are encoded, perpetuated, regenerated, and replicated. We do not enter the world a blank slate, but rather pre-loaded with schema ready to assimilate compatible awarnesses, data, and options. Our adaptations and our choices are predetermined, not so much in the sense that there is no choice, that we cannot effect change or direct the destiny of our awarenesses—not that choice is an illusion—but rather the range and the limits of creativity and invention, self-determination, are set. Unquantifiable ranges of permutation are available to all actors in the universe, but not all things are possible. In fact, that there are definable limits to the possible constitutes, and describes, one of the only irrefutable conditions of all that is knowable. Inevitably, one reaches the end of all things.
For a thing to be, it must be what it is not. But to be what it is not, and acknowledged, a thing must be made of the same stuff as that what is.
We must be aware of the dangers that lie in our most generous wishes. Some paradox of our nature leads us, when once we have made our fellow men the objects of our enlightened interest, to go on to make them the objects of our pity, then of our wisdom, ultimately of our coercion.
♦ Lionel Trilling, The Liberal Imagination
And so in the late twentieth century the imperial cycle of the last century in some way replicates itself, although today there are really no big empty spaces, no expanding frontiers, no exciting new settlements to establish. We live in one global environment with a huge number of ecological, economic, social, and political pressures tearing at its only dimly perceived, basically uninterpreted and uncomprehended fabric. Anyone with even a vague consciousness of this whole is alarmed at how such remorselessly selfish and narrow interests—patriotism, chauvinism, ethnic, religious, and racial hatreds—can in fact lead to mass destructiveness. The world simply cannot afford this many more times.
♦ Edward Said, “Two Visions in Heart of Darkness“
The populist dramatics presently unfolding, spreading out, and blanketing large swaths of the earth’s restless surface are part of the fabric that Said qualified as not just “basically uninterpreted” but also “uncomprehended.” I would add that the interwoven thread counts of ecology, economy, society, and politics also exist as a fabric uninterrupted: for the accumulated fibres of our invention have seamlessly stitched up every square millimetre of real estate, solid or psychic, spatial or virtual, from point to point to point. There is nothing raw, open, uncatalogued, or uncovered in the sense that would have existed for that plucky imperialist surveyor out at the vanguard of “civilization.” The map doesn’t drop off at some point. The tapestry of record covers all continents and states of matter, but it doesn’t exist with any satisfactory kind of explanatory notes. When almost anyone can know that everywhere in the world exists in unquestionable reification, and that you can’t fire a cannon anywhere without wiping out a village, you begin to realize that we are all part of the weave, and that its constantly evolving design is simply beyond any of us to contend with definitively. And yet, just as the illusion of the frontier of human conquest has dwindled from overtly national consciousnesses of patriotic narratives (for now), capitalist minds attuned to handicap everywhere remain constantly on the look-out to press their advantage on any number of fronts. Colonization remains a presaged and imperative force, and constantly on the move into spaces not empty, not unknown, but only provisionally unexploited. It is the lack of comprehension that allows for the reemergence and reassertion of mythologies reductive enough to claim that the human fabric is patchy, in need of radical repair, and not just inequivalent but also of unequal quality, stitch to stitch.
There is a lot of loneliness.
As we bump shoulders and rub elbows, plowing ahead in this interminable journey toward each moment, each subsequent depression in space-time—the what of what follows next—there is a lot of silent nagging. There is an isolated sense of oneness that does not feel like it is in company; and that asserts the consciousness of being alone, despite the population of the world—the incontrovertible, unavoidable suffocation that progressively accumulates between the interactions of so many bodies, so close, so endlessly wanting, yet sharing with each other so very grudgingly. It is hard not to think that, sometimes, the voice that is so many voices on the inside—the part of me that says me, as well as I, but at the same time even cries out questions like what about?, and is it really?—is so isolated, so indentured to its own companionship, that the outside may, just may, be a hallucination.
This is not a new or drastic hypothesis. Even if we know in our bones that we are active in a world that is not fundamentally of ourselves, we do not know that we are not by ourselves. What is commonly written off as paranoia plays quite acutely into the troublesome notion that, if we are honest about the experience, we are either more or less connected to reality than we are comfortably aware of. Ostensibly, we are now at a point that it can be unequivocally said that everything is radically interdependent. Our investigations into the biosphere, all the ecosystems of life—and onto the expressions of that life—only serve to demonstrate the inconceivably dense mutualities of being. The tethers that bind this to that, and then that to everything else, are being continually uncovered by all areas of curiosity. The physics, the chemistry, the biology; the sociology, psychology, and neuroscience of all the spheres come to be disentangled just long enough to show us that they are utterly, and perhaps limitlessly, entangled. The chain of being has been exposed: the universe is not a chain, it is a web, and the cables of interconnectivity span not just the animate organisms of the world, but all bodies that move everywhere, along with the energies that drive them. This systemic dependence permeates reality to such a degree that the mind that can conceive the boundaries of a cosmic totality is not a mind, as such, but the collective co-calculations and projections of independent points of inspiration, aggregated on and within the synthetic products of human inquiry. Inspiration, it turns out, isn’t individual genius, it is the ongoing product of a collective act of expression.
So, the contingencies of being tirelessly radiate outward from the self; yet the outside world only gives the individual the most menial proof that we are truly in attendance most of the time. The signs and signals the assert connectivity can only be verified by confidence in the senses. The same senses that are routinely shown by experiments you can do on yourself to be fallible and prone to mistakes. Could everyone be a puppet? Good question. Is there a game so subtle and insidious at play that everyone is in on it and I am the only one who does not know the rules? Nobody is qualified to say. Or, are the eyes that look back into mine anything more than mechanical devices, elaborately engineered to respond to my provocations without any sort of process? That’s interesting. That’s absorbing and troublesome. Is my life animated by kneejerk reactions to my hard-won, but ultimately banal and routine, decisions? How does one adjudicate in this morass of confusion when I have never been taught to adequately evaluate it?
Everyone is looking at me.
No. No that’s not right.
No one is looking at me.
Nothing I can do will prove, incontrovertibly, that I am not a figment adrift in a complex, meaningless, phenomenon of chance and obsession; something that could expire at any moment. From what I know, I am precarious. The forces at play that keep me upright, animate and animated, may be multiplicitous, may be conceivably unquantifiable, but their reality remains something that I need to believe in; the something of everything needs to register within my borders as that which I can invest the self of myself into.
What keeps me sane, comfortable, and comforted? I suppose, the beautiful illusion of communion—the suggestion that stimulus and response is dependable and authentic; that the respect I perform outwardly is the respect I experience inwardly. These are the static sparks flaring under the touch of the hand, the reassurances that prick the instant awake. It remains so interesting to be.
Better Known as Metonym, Paradox, Finitude, and Aporia
One can only engage with dynamic systems if not to succumb to the ossifications that accrue around repetition and its corollary, lassitude.
But in the attempt to comprehensively encompass any kind of dynamic totality, the structure of interrelations eventually collapses as additions accrue and alignments shift.
The arrow of time brooks no exceptions, and the increase of entropy is the only lucid, determinable telos of any cosmic material teleology.
What is left, between that which is identifiable, are empty spaces between, through which nothing coheres, except by arbitrary association; which is only sensible to the initiated who maintain those associations.
The void and the annihilation of meaning is all that remains to be witnessed, once connections fail.
Communion is impossible.
Understanding is unachievable.
Enlightenment means reduction to primary premises and a relinquishment of a worldly imperative in favour of a principle of otherworldly rest.
History is fabrication and fantasy.
Any promise that the future transmits to us comes to be appropriated and/or perverted by indifferent, lazy, stupid, and/or malign forces, all eager to co-opt any hope of inclusivity and community to, rather, exclusion and exclusivity—on any and all scales.
The luminous experiences that come from leading the forces of culture are not immune to any of this. They are sustained by the distraction of creating idealized narratives, or through their products of utility and evanescent pleasure, through which we may establish resonant patterns that promote recognition in the events of our own memories and experiences.
The bundling of a cosmic awareness into a personal existence is a recipe that eventually results in suicidal ideation. It is too much for an individual to bear; yet we’re all expected by the overmind to be capable of shouldering this burden, in a system where only a select few are directly participating, and fewer still are major actors.
The only defence capable of preserving this human paradigm is community, willful ignorance, and gratitude built around the groupings of local consciousness; and the terror of its cancellation.
Bodies lie. They demur. They recline and they equivocate. Any clear insistence, any indisputable inspiration, comes from the mind; the mind that animates but must also contend with base reality. As the malleable flesh fails and ages around the signals, bright and incandescent, firing between the cells of our bone houses, our agendas are perverted. Our plans are ruddied by the flush of instinct, the knee-jerk spasm that knocks the painstakingly assembled model over, to scatter its assemblage across the floor. How is it that this is how we must be, every day, until we’re not?
I know full well what I want from my day, every day. It’s not complicated. I want to pull off a double-summersault-backflip-pirouette, over lava, suspended by a ductile thread of contingent assurity. I would like to do this without fail, fall, or fracture. I would like to do it on command. Such things seem eminently possible before I climb out of bed, and burn my toast. The signal and the action are at odds; and while I feel indisputably here as my casement comes into contact with the ground, the walls, the air, I am also manifestly not here: I am wringing fireworks from failures in a zone that does not disturb the stratosphere. I am knocking the surfaces of indignity with a well-worn rap of my metaphysical knuckles. These are operations that do not leave a discernible mark. What I have to show, on the other hand, are powder burns and skinned fists. Failure— because it is always failure with the body; the body never lives up to its potential—is perfectly evident when the mind falters; but it falters because of sleep; because of hunger; because of transitional lusts that scuttle our best plans.
So, today I’m embracing the failure before it catches up with me.