When anyone was witty about a contemporary event, she would look perplexed and a little dismayed, as if someone had done something that really should not have been done; therefore her attention had been narrowed down to listening for faux pas. She frequently talked about something being the ‘death of her,’ and certainly anything could have been had she been the first to suffer it. The words that fell from her mouth seemed to have been lent to her; had she been forced to invent a vocabulary for herself, it would have been a vocabulary of two words, ‘ah’ and ‘oh.’ Hovering, trembling, tip-toeing, she would unwind anecdote after anecdote in a light rapid lisping voice which one always expected to change, to drop and to become the ‘every day’ voice; but it never did. The stories were humorous, well told. She would smile, toss her hands up, widen her eyes; immediately everyone in the room had a certain feeling of something lost, sensing that there was one person who was missing the importance of the moment, who had not heard the story; the teller herself.✧ Djuna Barnes, Nightwood
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.
Sex, like being human, is contextual. Attempts to isolate it from its discursive, socially determined milieu are as doomed to failure as the philosophe‘s search for a truly wild child or the modern anthropologist’s efforts to filter out the cultural so as to leave a residue of essential humanity. And I would go further and add that the private, enclosed, stable body that seems to lie at the basis of modern notions of sexual difference is also the product of particular, historical, cultural moments. It too, like opposite sexes, comes into and out of focus.✧ Thomas Laqueur, Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud
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.
I do not present this view of history as one that is stable and must prevail. Whatever validity it may claim, it is certain, on its own premises, to be supplanted . . . However accurately we may determine the ‘facts’ of history, the facts themselves and our interpretations of them, and our interpretation of our own interpretations, will be seen in a different perspective . . . as mankind moves into the unknown future. Regarded historically, as a process of becoming, man and his world can obviously only be understood tentatively, since it is by definition something still in the making, something as yet unfinished.✧ Carl Becker, “Everyman His Own Historian”
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 the triumph of empiricism is jeopardized by the surprising truth that our sense data are primarily symbols.
♦ Susanne K. Langer, Philosophy in a New Key
But our notebooks give us away, for however dutifully we record what we see around us, the common denominator of all we see is always, transparently, shamelessly, the implacable “I.” We are not talking here about the kind of notebook that is patently for public consumption, a structural conceit for binding together a series of graceful pensées; we are talking about something private, about bits of the mind’s string too short to use, an indiscriminate and erratic assemblage with meaning only for its maker.
♦ Joan Didion, “On Keeping a Notebook”
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.
The notion of ‘just now’ has been lived out indeed in a century already divided into decades with names and nicknames, ranging from the dynastic to the dynamic, from Edwardian to Roaring. Most important, an instant-by-instant difference in the actual experience of historical time lives out—and in—the rhythms of an unprecedented and accelerating pace of change in the history of material cultures. Accordingly, the imaginative experience of temporality moves beyond one of crisis time to one of time itself in crisis: a formerly natural, apparently gradual time of diurnal days and seasonal rounds has been lined ever more finely and grandly by the developing mechanisms of chronometry, which have worked in ways little and large—from the division of the globe into twenty-four equal time zones to the parsing of micro-times within a supposedly seamless instantaneity—to unsettle temporal measurement itself.
♦ Vincent Sherry, “A History of ‘Modernism'”