Fixed Borders

Yesterday Judith Butler was in town. A room bursting with bodies helped underscore the topic of her lecture, Public Assembly and Plural Action. And there we were, assembling: people were crowded on the mezzanine, crouched on the radiators by the windows, standing in an attentive throng at the back. The vaulted ceilings and tall stained glass windows did nothing to disguise that there were pressures within the confines of the hall. Spatial concerns; fire code violations; but also those pressures produced by psychic human concerns. There were tensions. There were individuals heavily invested in being there, and not everyone could be accommodated. Butler attracts a multitude. It is quite a feat, writing and being read across so many disciplinary boundaries, in and out of the academy. There were undoubtedly a number of unspoken agendas circulating and invisibly pressuring each other amongst the crowd; but we all surrendered to plural action. We all made nice, right up until the end.

My companion and I had secured some uncomfortable wooden chairs right in the center of the assembly. In spite of her protests of disbelief, I prevailed upon my friend and got us there 75 minutes early. For, despite harboring genuine anticipation, I was not excited enough to warrant standing at the back of a crowded room for hours just to hear the professor in person. I wanted to attend—not haunt—the event. In the end we were well situated, even if our chairs did inexorably deaden our backsides.

“We the people,” Butler intoned in the early phrases of her address, to frame the discourse of her paper; and these words, so freighted and resonant south of the border, have their own undeniable currency abroad. Their rallying premise, as a point of genesis rather than a jingoist mantra, undeniably has the capacity to stir something positive, especially in those who believe that individual people can coalesce around a core of collective well being. I certainly believe we have that capacity. I invest in that premise with all the devotion of a sweetheart. I would carve hearts around the letters of an ideal democracy on the boards of bridges, into the trunks of trees.

Butler’s “we the people” constitutes a performative, one that is enacted even when the gathering of individuals is not entirely physical, or not entirely or explicitly idealistically cognate. It happens through its very collectivity, in the identification of a larger body, with or without a clearly articulated agenda; simply as a fact, as a thing; and it is possible that that this thing has a sovereignty that presupposes the sovereignty of the state. Perhaps, in fact, it must.

I came away boiling with thoughts of plural action, articulating across the world, across temporal boundaries, in and out of spaces sanctioned for the purpose, in and out of public. How do these mobilizations happen? What are their boundaries? Where does inclusivity and exclusivity occur? How does a collective initiate the move from figurative to actual change? And in this age of intense visualization, how do we imagine the legitimizing forums that provide the stage for meaningful gatherings? Do they have a component of broadcast media, is that necessary to be taken seriously, or does collective action supersede these modern, virtual arenas?

Butler remains provocative, 25 years out of the gate.

Notational, No. 3

For my talent is to give an Impression upon words by punching, that when the reader casts his eye upon ’em, he takes up the image from the mould which I have made.

♦ Christopher Smart, Jubilate Agno

Undeniable that talent has a weight, both as an aptitude and as a currency. What you might trade it for, how it might exchange, is heavily dependent on a market value that is largely outside the possessor’s control—also, on where and who is deprived of its heft and influence. The value in this case is clear: Smart’s ability to produce an impression in a textual medium, punch an outline in “words,” and manifest the affective register of his language, the evocations of startling turns, nouns translated into verbs, actions and things superimposing to occur as unified objects. He knows what he’s doing is effective. He has a strong enough sense of what he is worth to pay the audience almost impudently, as if the suggestion of madness has never veiled the lines of his verse. Are all iconoclasts inherently confident?

Direct Modification

The burdens of this season are not melting yet. In fact, they’re settling in strata. There is a transient geology to be studied in the sediments (and sentiments) that layer and compound, as winter weighs this chapter of the almanac down. We’re compressed. We ossify a little between frozen ground and snow, but also between the sub-freezing temperatures and the cost of keeping warm. Each stratum that complicates movement or rest contributes to our fixity and our preservation. We need to last ’till spring.

This season is uncommonly heavy with anticipation. This time around I am particularly aware of the burden, waiting out the winter of 2014; it is the year that the conditions that define my environment will change. We just do not know what precisely they are changing to.

This afternoon I wrote a technical summary of Lamarck’s theory of adaptation, the ideological precursor to Darwin’s version of descent with modification. In the early 1800s Lamarck proposed an intimate relationship between any given organism and its environment. He was one of the first to suggest that it is what surrounds life, what composes its boundaries and limits, that determines the expression of that life, not just behaviourally but physically. Accordingly, we are not born with a purpose or function that is our own: we inherit these things from those ancestors that developed them, an intergenerational transaction that tracks so far back that the concept of origins dissolve in a nebulous region of pre-identity, of deep time. We are all tracing the intricacies of a continuum that begins simply, but complicate as creation marches forward.

The premise states that the structure of our life, as it functions in the present, is more complex than the life that prefigured it. By exercising what we need to exercise, by flexing those faculties available to us—to cope with the acute demands of our environment—we are strengthening not just ourselves, but our descendants. There is agency in our inheritance and in our evolution; although Lamarck never used the word “evolution.”

It is an appealing theory in the way that it mobilizes the feel of history. The components of a use/disuse effect upon our very nature rewards the effort we put into our dedications, and seems to suggest that we can imprint our accomplishments onto a nascent future. It is not quite like Darwin’s lottery, where dice composed of cosmic rays determine the pace of change; even if, in the case of this example, the dice are anachronistic.

I like to think of my own development as Lamarckian, within the boundaries of my own existence. I prefer to consider my intellectual life in terms of successive generations, less complex manifestations self-generating my next iteration in response to an environment that has bounded me, and creating better adapted individual to live in the next era, just a little more complicated and assured. (The complication is an unavoidable consequence: I don’t know if I work more efficiently, but I do know I work more.)

You can see how compelling it is to think in these terms. You might understand how the modern theory of evolution still becomes easily conflated with more antiquated designs of thought. I hope the pressures of these layers upon me right now preserve some of what I have been during this last period. It may not be an accurate way to describe what is going on within the ecosystem of my own boundaries, but I feel the beginnings of another self more complex and purposeful.

Notational, No. 2

So many turns you sigh, the linguistic turn, the political, the ethical and so on et cetera, enough to make you turn in your grave, prematurely, you think, no need for another, especially not a literary turn, you have to be joking. You always considered the phrase ‘linguistic turn’ to be a sort of joke, a somewhat comical but also delusory gesture apparently intended to refer to a new attentiveness to the importance of language in thinking, in philosophy and culture more generally, as if there were something before the turn, as if it thus confirmed that there were writings (Shakespeare’s, for example) that weren’t turned and already turning from the beginning, and as if the words ‘linguistic turn’ could be written, read, spoken or thought about without any need to register or try to reckon with the metalinguistic logic thereby inscribed.

♦ Nicholas Royle, Veering: A Theory of Literature

The post-structuralists animated this provocative kind of movement in language so vividly; but you can’t avoid the joke, not really, especially now that it has been articulated so eloquently, so persuasively, so repeatedly. The idea that there was a kind of writing before the straightness of language was called into question, before any evident kink was discerned in the central structure of what we consider legible—that there was somewhere, sometime, a literature free of inherent instability—comes off as more and more absurd the more the premise is examined. The need to address the “turn” becomes evident. We move from our trajectories mid-stoke. We do veer. If universal translation was possible from print to mind, from text to template, it would be an anodyne accomplishment fit for endless application—if we could clean up the mystery of transmission, so much suffering and confusion could be erased, but we would live with so much less in the outcome. I commit to exploiting the turn because I feel like there is some resolution to my restlessness in proliferating the field. These very real complications that deny a direct conduit from the undisclosed to the enunciated keep me from losing faith in the entire human project.

Unconscious Reading

It is worth noting that the books do not close after dark: not when the sun goes down, nor when the lights go out. My Kindle gives off a sallow, uneven glow that only serves to cut out its unnerving “stable text,” even after the rest of the apartment is shut down. I can read wrapped in the approximate gloom of the urban night. And even after I’ve deactivated my 21st century reader and put it aside, sometimes, I still go at it. There are periods of sleep where words will scribe themselves through the pages of my dreams. There are times when I read my unconscious.

I suppose this is the result of being so absorbed by the act. Reading is the constituent, cerebral material that composes the greater share of my commitments, my ambitions, and my pleasures. Yet I always feel behind. It doesn’t happen fast enough. The list is too long. My eyes, my brain, are too slow. These past four years I have been trying to catch up, to inscribe a state of knowing on a space of acute ignorance, but there abound more and more possible texts to assess and consume. Beyond reading lists, beyond recommended articles and current distractions, there is a paralytic superabundance of things written down that it would be useful to encounter; and there is only so much time.

This is a situation that I must make peace with. Reading and dreaming share a coterminous relationship for the academic in training: sleeping or waking they are activities that superimpose upon one another and share the same boundaries of experience. They expand as a fused, organic unit. I need both to continue forward; I am bound up by both as I plan and galvanize the trajectory of my future; and the spectre of improbability haunts both their enactments.

“Have you heard the speech?” asked a professor last fall after I had asked him for a letter of reference.

“Which speech?” I responded warily.

“The one where I tell you that there are no jobs, that the whole institution is in flux, that tenure may be a thing of the past—”

“Oh, that speech!” I said. “Yes, yes—I heard it when I first decided to come back to school.”

“Alright then. I just feel I have a moral obligation to warn you off.”

“And I respect that.”

Which is true. What I told him then, and what I’m affirming now, is that there is little else that I can envision myself doing besides this. It is not apathy that has driven me to this point—it is genuine ambition. I have tried other avenues, other prospects, and the result was not only underwhelming, but also depressing, and somewhat claustrophobic. The dream has always involved many books, and disseminating the texture and tenor of thought. Contributing to the sum total of human knowledge. There is no other professional arena for a humanities major. My only option is to think and write my way forward, and heed my unconscious as it discloses itself in phrases: words scribbling their way out in the dark.

Fragmentary, No. 2

“One of the mysteries in the history of chemistry is how seldom chemists blew themselves up while investigating novel substances and reactions. Hydrogen and oxygen . . . can burn smoothly together, but they can also react explosively. Priestley used to carry small bottles of these two airs, and he entertained visitors by exploding the gases.”

♦ Trevor H. Levere, Transforming Matter: A History of Chemistry from Alchemy to the Buckyball

Notational, No. 1

” ‘Sublimation’ occurs when an object, part of everyday reality, finds itself at the place of the impossible Thing. Herein resides the function of those artificial obstacles that suddenly hinder our access to some ordinary object: they elevate the object into a stand-in for the Thing. This is how the impossible changes into the prohibited: by way of the short circuit between the Thing and some positive object rendered inaccessible through artificial obstacles.”

♦ Slavoj Žižek, “Courtly Love, or, Woman as Thing”

Not necessarily even a visible obstacle, but perhaps sometimes an irresolvable and continuously reversed telescoping away of the object; a gradual but unmistakable receding of the possibility. Interposition can be this kind of relative positioning: additional space that we have provided, or invoked, between ourself and the goal, the illusive desire that is out of our reach before we even attempt to achieve it. Inasmuch as this is a reiteration of the same dilemma differently visualized, it can still afford to be said that “artificial obstacles” at times resist articulate signification: the distance between here to there can simply become impossible to traverse; and what time and effort can be expended trying, or trying to avoid trying, in spite of that. Historically the prohibited can be innately unexplainable, and the sensible obstacle conjured as a retroactive justification.

Fragmentary, No. 1

The phenomenologist from Paris hates mosquitoes
and carries a small electronic device
that lures the female mosquito to her death
by simulating the amorous cry of the male. Then,
to block the whining sound, he has pink earplugs.
As he sits in conversation
with the phenomenologist from Sussex
a mosquito is observed to enter.
The Englishman leaps to his feet,
calling, “Let us use the mosquito machine!”
and smashes the insect to the wall
with the device. It is the first sign
of wide ontological differences
that will open in the Anglo-French dialectic

♦ Anne Carson, from “What Do We Have Here?”
in Plainwater: Essays and Poetry, (1995)


Negative Forms

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.