Looks like what drives me crazy✧ Langston Hughes, “Evil”
Don’t have no effect on you—
But I’m gonna keep on at it
Till it drives you crazy, too.
(A Short Essay)
*“Do not disturb what is at rest or settled”
Moving targets are hard to account for. Anything busy—operational—energized—mobile, brings with it the acute awareness of change working its way from one moment to the next. This results in the immeasurable. This makes any account quite literally unaccountable. If one really is to know, one must look at something finished, something spent.
Ostensibly, the study of literature is the study of objects at rest: words inert; sentences fixed; editions complete and seldom revised. One reflexively thinks of books as shelved quietly in cases, set behind doors fastened against the damp and against the elements; dust accumulating at an invisible pace—evidence of the motionless sleep that accrues volumes of time around the volumes of history. Novelty occurs when a book is sprung. When one is released the archives of the world expand by the iota of a thousand words recombined to say something slightly different than all of those words have said before; but, once that’s done, the novelty is relegated to the archive of history—history which, as we all know, is written and so remains, unchanging.
Sitting in a library would seem to be a quiet sort of respite from the hurly-burly, from the frantic momentum of all the cosmopolitan disasters consuming the world at the pace of seconds subdivided to the power of 21. Each zeptosecond contains a trillion neutrinos’ passage through the Earth’s disaster. Billions of trillions more will pass beyond the scope of my entire life before I read thirty pages of Gertrude Stein. It’s a quiet, still life, no?
It is a quaint thought, and thought is at the root of it. The hurly-burly I am caught up in regards all the regarding, the reading that assumes the shape of words worked out long before I came along but still move the world as much as they move me since they have been and were put down to make a point, and that point is traveling. Now they act as actors, driving as many minds as can reach them. This is a frenetic life of repose—the work of the mind at odds with the lassitude of the body that cramps and whines in tics and pains that come from a stationary rush toward the end. It may not be a good idea to disturb the thing or the person at rest or settled, but I know that I don’t fall into this category of stationary, motionless. The torpor of a library’s resident is cosmetic. I have been disturbed for years, from the beginning—always already plying at the crannies of the real with restless symbolic notions—and I am at a loss to describe what has stopped. These things called books make for dangerous bedfellows. We are bound together under well-established covers, but insecure from one night to the next.
It’s a quiet life; except there is no quiet, and there is no rest. The soundless noise of history is not settled. Pages turn and so do we, from facing to following to walking away with our backs turned obstinately. Every old book, a new book. Every long sit, a scandal. Every age recorded, a cataclysm from the settled volumes of the past.
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.
Expectation is a curious orientation. At its heart, it is a state that we feel entitled to. When we turn ourselves outward, grasp invisibly into the future, and take hold of a thing un-yet realized . . . something about that feels justified; even if it doesn’t feel so very realistic. What we expect draws within and coalesces around a core of right: as if some deeper reasoning has been at work, drafting a bill that comes into effect at midnight. From inside our subjectivity: the eager public: ourselves: we have been given just enough grounds to dwell upon even our most modest desires and our willingness to be spoiled. There is something in the future that we feel we deserve just as much as we want.
Often what comes to be revealed on the day is both a fulfillment and a desolation; a raw recognition or conversely equal disappointment. Jubilation. Despair. The accumulated evidence of many tomorrows waited out has its own way of making us feel adequate but out of sync. We are led to invest in the coming moment, to foresee a kind of destiny upon its arrival. Life, it may be said, encourages it. Patterns emerge effortlessly, and we project them on a luminous screen that banners across the approaching morning.
To expect, in the true sense of the word, carries with it an array of consequences. To expect brings all stray desires home with you, but snappingly hungry and irritable about the meal that’s on offer. In reality, and I speak broadly, the random, unforeseeable nature of even the simplest outcomes means that our dreams are constantly thwarted; but also that the most reasonable drafts detailing our rights in the future promised by ourselves to ourselves refuse to manifest faithfully. Our fictions are choked with characters perfectly adapted to the whims and uncertainties of their time and place. The sleuth susses out the criminal, rarely surprised by the knave’s nefarious endgame—but together they’ll often talk it out, until all the motivations are clear. The valiant and perspicacious leader addresses the crowd—but wasn’t he always sure of persevering, and wasn’t the defeat in line with his expectations from the beginning? The Machiavellian plots of the mastermind results in a coordinated pulling of all the strings of countless hangers-on, and puppets, wound in clockwork, dance according to the might of the right she has invested her powers in. The dream of a dream realized is reinscribed over and over. We might expect that at some point our own hard-won deductions, inductions, or abductions will someday work out for us unequivocally. The projected rights of tomorrow will work out right in an end befitting our creative drafts.
This is a season of expectations. Despite the anti-climaxes of ambitions thwarted and dreams unrealized—relationships, presents, and events unrequited despite our unquestionable deservedness—the holiday season is a lesson in acceptance, of things as they are with all of their unexpected manifestations. Our right to the future can only ever be approximate, just like everything else. What we see coming our way, behind the luminous screen, resolves itself into view as it crests the horizon. Is that what I was waiting for?
Yes. This is what you get.
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.
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.
Apathy and anticipation are both features of the void. At least, when the void is home to consciousness, an awareness positing “I am” despite an absence of purchase; in spite of the featureless lacuna that surrounds the self that has been inaugurated with experience, but which suddenly finds itself swaddled in lack: lack of stimulation; lack of motivation; lack of purpose and lack of any proposal. Yet within that absence possibility gestates. “I” can be spun out into action. “I” might question. “I” might answer an implicit query. “I” might create.
This is easier said than done when there are so few forces to impel progress. Though I don’t sit here without anything to do, there is definitely an absence of pertinence. I have prayed at the alter of the future; I have pleaded and I have bargained; and while I wait for the powers that move my world to mobilize and give form to what must eventually succeed this moment, this non-event that expands to consume days and weeks, I feel I am filled with nothing.
Of course any concept of nothing in this universe is an illusion. We are most assuredly surrounded by something, made of something, inundated with and by things both within and without. The concept of being truly alone and bereft is a conceit that comes out of frustration, boredom, and powerlessness. The feeling of nothing that can surround the self like a pure, mathematical zero, is primarily a product of waiting. When and how, questions that assuredly exist, which count as something more than nothing, gesture towards a yearning: a desire to know the formation of developments in time, to predict a future less featureless and wanting.
What is hard to remember in times where the world proffers no stick and no carrot is that motivation and actuation flow from the agency that emanates from the I that is constantly trying to know itself—the only engine that any of us can recognize implicitly; vitally. I question the nature of my own facticity during these times of lassitude. Where can you locate the locus of identity when there is so much unbounded, unremarkable stuff filling the regions of awareness? How might one find the centre? Why can I not materialize an engaging product of my various quantities, unseen but felt all akimbo in the disordered vault of my psyche? Does the knot that questions ever receive a form of definitive answer?
So much work goes into the attempt to accomplish the impossible—to observe oneself observing; to turn back upon the origin and affirm that it is real and not some solipsism. It is a yearning that works against the mechanics of the real, an attempt to corral the symbolic into the service of proving its own premise; but this statement is unprovable. Our paradox has no resolution. These collections of atoms turned upon themselves, asking what they are and how they came to be must also answer their own interrogations in such a way that they might justify their anguish. I am here as long as I am, and, no matter the circumstances, here has no rest. Out of the something that masquerades as nothing, out of the ostensible and jejune lack that threatens the awareness of self that floats unbounded and undirected, one must posit. One must assert. One must commit to a protean premise that can justify the work of experience. If action is to define the self, then each articulation of consciousness is an irrefutable stroke recorded in the void; the void that is never empty. These strokes accumulate, they cluster, and, though they may not ensure a definite margin to separate act from perception, each movement is a decision that affirms and directs life. Life is the business of sustaining an ineffable spark. Even cocooned in absence it burns, mystified by its own light.
As murky and undisclosed as the root motivations that drive the liberal arts can sometimes seem, there are some tacit assumptions and ambitions that do begin to take shape amongst the arena’s composite disciplines, collectively giving definition to the field of inquiry. Upon examination, “our lives, our world, and our future prosperity” are clearly central concerns that inhere at the very core of liberal arts research. By virtue of the commonalities there are to be found between the heterogeneous approaches to scholarship, analysis, and discourse that traverse the bodies of work found in the study of modern languages, history, philosophy, linguistics, et al. a clearer picture of what might be called the investigation of human enterprise, the study of the human sciences, emerges.
If we are to live in a world dependent upon the transmission of information, where not just functional literacy—the capacity to read and write an alphabet—is essential to gain access to the higher functions and institutions of our society, but also a symbolic and figurative literacy—one that allows the educated to gain some perspective about where and how the subject is situated in the larger world, and that that world has a reality that includes more than the present moment, but also a barely fathomable past and an receding horizon of contemporary cultures and concerns—then it is essential that the expressions and products of human perception and thought are studied. Our culture is the aggregate sum of its parts, past and present, and, when catalogued, the means an individual has to make sense of its existence can seem to be quite meager. A staggering amount of the information that bombards the mind of a contemporary ego relates to immediacy, to navigating and surviving the ever-shifting currents of a surging, interdependent ocean of things-which-must-be-done. What the liberal arts exist to do is to call attention, from within the moment, from the vantage of the perpetually ebbing present, to the patterns that emerge: the way that they replicate; how they imply sources; how they describe and prioritize hierarchies of concern that exist outside of the individual, and rather traverse the space between individuals, construct meaning, and define purposes.
The objects and expressions that humankind produces and has produced—from writing, to sculpture, to architecture, to visual arts, to music—all these things contain within them manifest and latent content. Just as Freud said of dreams, so is it true of all productions of the human mind. Objects that have been bequeathed to us from previous generations, due either to intention or happenstance, reverence or serendipity, these things comprise the substance of our enterprise as a self-referential species. Everything we have that has emerged from human impulse is not only record, but code. In the attempt to understand these objects and the ideas they articulate better, we are breaking a cipher that obscures every unexamined convention, every rote decision, every cultural moment of panic that threatens the cohesion of our collective project.
We are a cooperative species. This cooperative nature is more profound than our economic and national ties. What we read, how we converse, the stories that inspire us, the images that absorb us, the spaces we reside, gather, and celebrate in all contribute to how we prioritize and understand the world that we are constantly creating. Without an attempt to articulate the magnitude of what we express, and what we have been expressing from the beginning of recorded time, we have no hope of escaping dread of the future, or dissatisfaction with the past. Fear is the product of ignorance. This has been true of every region approached by human thought and then subject to resistance of comprehension. Just as we need science, mathematics, and medicine to render the world more approachable and livable, so do we need the liberal arts. Without an attempt to understand what it is that we do, what it is that we have been doing, and how it is that we mean to mean something to ourselves and others—how this project has been a driving force behind living a life worth living since a human being articulated “why?”—we are destined to live on the cusp of an ignorant panic, confounded by the symbols and structures of our own history. The liberal arts are what keep our lives and our world integrated with who we have been, and, increasingly, with who we are today as they study what transmits meaning, on an individual to global scale. The prospect of prosperity is dismal without meaning. Such a way of living can only promote an appalling transience, where the inhabitants of the now perform drastic acts of vivisection on the operations of society that carry the promise of a tomorrow capable of carrying on any insight from its predecessors. Ignoring the necessity of evaluating our connective tissues—the records of human expression—robs potential answers from any member of our race who dares to draw a question mark after doing something (anything) for its own sake.
[I]t must be remembered, that while our language is yet living, and variable by the caprice of every tongue that speaks it, these words are hourly shifting their relations, and can no more be ascertained in a dictionary, than a grove, in the agitation of a storm, can be accurately delineated from its picture in the water . . .
♦ Samuel Johnson, from the Preface to A Dictionary of the English Language (1755)
A neologism born out of agitation, a discomfort in the abstract body, and a drive to direct turbulent formulations of ephemera out: outward; outside, into the open. Its root, my well-worn friend pensive, traces a spectrum of inversion, beginning with “sorrowfully thoughtful; gloomy, sad, melancholy” (OED); a condition familiar, but unwelcome save for the rainiest of days; days when the water mark inches above safety; days when little else gets done—just a kind of condensing within your own borders. We also read “more generally: full of thought; meditative, reflective,” and this takes up so much time in the business of my world that it best go unquantified. Yet I maintain that there is a time to take off the thinking cap and transform passive activity into something a little more aggressive and concrete. And then there is the notion that thought belies action, that meditation dives towards a void. This counters my ambition. I am trying to surface with an array entities detailed, not effaced, even if it is impossible not to lose something essential in articulation. This is not where I am going to strive for oneness; it is where I am going to attempt to splinter into multiplicity.
So the prefix im- comes in to counter what might be considered the pitfalls of the “thoughtful,” but also to drive in the opposite direction from being “anxious as to plans and future events,” to rail against being “apprehensive.” There is an impatience in the result, a restless energy, an impetus to jettison thought from the lugubrious internal grottos and relieve the pressure: a commitment to the future rather than an apprehension; a cultivated excitement rather than dread.
This is the quality of writing things down.