Acheronta movebo*

(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.

Notational, No. 22

Isn’t electricity a mysterious thing? Wasn’t it Benjamin Franklin who tied a key to a kite? We live in such a mysterious universe, don’t we? Some people say that science clears up all the mysteries for us. In my opinion it only creates more!

✧ Tennessee Williams, The Glass Menagerie

Amanda’s frivolous banter not only insinuates but also declaims a persistent reality, one that springs tenaciously from a devision of knowledges that springs from a modern bias. The conviction that comprehension and control of nature is a kind of revelation which remains unrelated to the understanding of human life, especially as it unfolds in day-to-day routines, obscures our imbrication with the very forces which have threatened us, and forced us to adapt, whinge, and pray to be delivered from for most of our frenetic history. To be sure electromagnetism is mysterious, as all action at a distance is mysterious; as light is mysterious, and the energy which drives all the motors of action. More, the mysteries of our universe do not collapse in the face of modelling and control, but multiply, and present new questions to replace the ones predictably answered. As a flippant toss of phrase isn’t what she’s saying eerily apropos? To point out that there is an outside and an inside to human experience—that the world continues to threaten and bamboozle us despite our research and inventions—is an indisputable truism; but is it not also something that genuinely needs to be contended with, not just when the lights burn out, but when we feel complacent and at ease with the idea of a “safely” manufactured environment, even though there is nothing to mediate between any bit of matter or energy, anywhere, that is not natural. Mystery remains nature’s default.


Notational, No. 21

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.

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Notational, No. 20

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.