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”
The moderns confused products with processes. They believed that the production of bureaucratic rationalization presupposed rational bureaucrats; that the production of universal science depended on universalist scientists; that the production of effective technologies led to the effectiveness of engineers; that the production of abstraction was itself abstract; that the production of formalism was itself formal. We might just as well say that a refinery produces oil in a refined manner, or that a dairy produces butter in a butterly way! The words ‘science’, ‘technology’, ‘organization’, ‘economy’, ‘abstraction’, ‘formalism’, and ‘universality’ designate many real effects that we must indeed respect and for which we have to account. But in no case do they designate the causes of these same effects. These words are good nouns, but they make lousy adjectives and terrible adverbs. Science does not produce itself scientifically any more than technology produces itself technologically or economy economically.✧ Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern
Marilyn Strathern . . . taught me that “it matters what ideas we use to think other ideas (with).” Strathern is an ethnographer of thinking practices. She embodies for me the arts of feminist speculative fabulation in the scholarly mode. It matters what matters we use to think other matters with; it matters what stories we tell to tell other stories with; it matters what knots knot knots, what thoughts think thoughts, what descriptions describe descriptions, what ties tie ties. It matters what stories make worlds, what worlds make stories. Strathern wrote about accepting the risk of relentless contingency; she thinks about anthropology as the knowledge practice that studies relations with relations, that puts relations at risk with other relations, from unexpected other worlds.
♦ Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble
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.
[This is not a dispatch; it is a meditation.]
The mystery of togetherness is a frightful illusion. No mind is, or ever will be, in true communion with any other mind. You will never spontaneously experience any other human being as a second self. All Others are, at the very least, impenetrable.
The entirety of the cosmos you experience is within you. No iota of matter, no quanta of energy, no movement of bodies, no gesture of goodwill, no screw of hate, no cry for help or exaltation has ever been before you have registered or conceived it.
There are things you do not actively control, but there is nothing that you are not. The sum total of your model of the universe cohabitates and transmits within your neural network to produce that node of being which expresses itself as I. This is the embodiment of the Self. The Self is the result of a constantly shifting totality that is curious and acquisitive, and entirely devoted to expressing itself to itself.
The Self is comprised of matter and energy that, in its ceaseless toil of maintenance and self-preservation, seeks continuously to free itself from itself and observe its origin. As consciousness describes itself only in effect, never cause, the source of the I is occluded, as the I occupies the node of existence identical to that which it wishes to see. The metaphysical locality of the Self is chained to its own subjectivity and can never escape the immediate performance of the I.
The Self is a mobile node that is driven to explore only inasmuch as its integrity is not threatened. Just as the experience of the body registers need for homeostasis, the experience of the mind strives for equilibrium.
Equilibrium can ossify into stasis. As change is the only constant of time, the healthy Self must adapt to change by maintaining its integrity, but also by accepting that, though continuous in its existence, the Self’s qualities must mutate as the necessities of interacting with what it does and does not understand—but which are all nonetheless part of itself—demand new strategies to cope with the reality that it has to work with.
If the universe exists beyond the perception of the Self, its ultimate reality is inaccessible beyond the terms of the Self; but if it does not, the I must accept that the simulation of a reality comprised of one fractured and multiplicious consciousness is the only one available to it.
Whether or not Other minds exist, the I that reasons and questions is lonely, and cannot define itself without translation developed though the interaction differences. Other minds are not the I that questions. Other minds must be contended with if the I is to maintain its integrity.
The elaborate structure of what is known and experienced only develops through testing and response. The isolated I, which can never prove that any Other mind exists, must suppose that what it experiences as Others equivalent to itself are essential for its equilibrium and continued integrity. As far as can be discerned, the experience of life is cognate with consciousness. Consciousness can only be validated by similar manifestations in experience. There must be a response to the I that questions.
As the I that questions is ultimately alone, and must develop tacit assurances as to the integrity of its existence. Without any ultimate verification, it continues to sense itself, and proliferate its experience in consistent but continually transforming ways.
The only way the I, which is the only known expression of existence in totality, can reasonably conduct itself without going mad is by recognising that all manifestations of difference must be treated as intimate expressions of its holistic appraisal of the universe. If reality is composed of the Self, the I must recognise that all discord, misery, and strife which it contributes to, or condones, is grief manifested within itself, and contributes to its own loss of integrity.
The only way for the I that questions to exist ethically is to honour what it experiences at the manifestations of reality with the same respect with which it treats itself.
I really believe that brotherhood is what makes a man human. If I owe God a human life, this is where I fall down. “Man liveth not by Self alone but in his brother’s face. . . . Each shall behold the Eternal Father and love and joy abound.” When the preachers of dread tell you that others only distract you from metaphysical freedom then you must turn away from them. The real and essential question is one of our employment by other human beings and their employment by us. Without this true employment you never dread death, you cultivate it. And consciousness when it doesn’t clearly understand what to live for, what to die for, can only abuse and ridicule itself.
♦ Saul Bellow, Herzog
The body is not a solitary fact. The system of interrelated organs that pulse and prompt action, which motivates reciprocal engagement, is only distinguished through interrelation of an external order. Other bodies are necessary for our own identities to be. This reality asserts itself from any direction you might approach to validate your own facticity. We are generated out of relationships. Think of the vast heritage of meetings that have occurred to beget each individual now present on the surface of the earth. And the continuity of our somatic heritage is reproduced in the vital need for contact and communication between bodies, in order to assert the singularity of the human self. We need each other as much as we have needed our ancestors.
There is another body that needs to be considered when an individual contemplates the extensions and limits of its own awareness. It is constructed of a virtual anatomy that has come into being through the genesis, transmission, and reception of what has been assessed as culture. Multiply coded, inter-relatable, ever changing, and fiercely compelling, it has grown out of that primal activity of naming things as well as their actions. The corpus of culture inhabits the activities that have accrued (and are accruing) between us. It transcends the limits of any solitary person, any one that exists or has existed. Each mind is the product of many minds.
We may only depart for regions unknown from the shores of collective achievement. Freedom requires a community to, in fact, be a state of being. Eschew the multitude! Fly to the metaphysical hinterlands of self-discovery! Climb the mountain and dig yourself into the summit! Cultivate the transcendent spiral of a featureless infinity! It denies the work that goes into making this radical undertaking significant. We are, none of us, self-corroborating entities. Each must send messages to each if there is to be a dialogue to emulate in the mind. A body that does not articulate and contend with other bodies has nothing to articulate or contend to itself.
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.
~ About stupidity . . .
From a musical game heard each week on FM and which seems “stupid” to him, he realizes this: stupidity is a hard and indivisible kernel, a primitive: no way of decomposing it scientifically (if a scientific analysis of stupidity were possible, TV would entirely collapse). What is it? A spectacle, an aesthetic fiction, perhaps a hallucination? Perhaps we want to put ourselves into the picture? It’s lovely, it takes your breath away, it’s strange; and about stupidity, I am entitled to say no more than this: that it fascinates me. Fascination is the correct feeling stupidity must inspire me with (if we reach the point of speaking the name): it grips me (it is intractable, nothing prevails over it, it takes you in an endless hand-over-hand race).
♦ Roland Barthes, Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes
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.
To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it “the way it really was.” It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up in a moment of danger. Historical materialism wishes to retain that image of the past which unexpectedly appears to man singled out by history at a moment of danger. The danger affects both the content of the tradition and its receivers. The same threat hangs over both: that of becoming a tool of the ruling classes. In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from conformism that is about to overpower it. The Messiah comes not only as the redeemer, he comes as the subduer of Antichrist. Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.
♦ Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History”
The ideal process of researching, and then articulating, the past continues to absorb even the most popularized mind—we do not need to look so far for proof of that—the silver screen never closes its bright window on the past; but the “danger” is all too apparent in the warped perspectives we find on offer. To say nothing of the agendas that populate “official” printed histories, or “definitive” academic accounts of an era, the slow evacuation of difficult to assimilate data from the public record, especially where infotainment is concerned—and disseminated so freely through our commercial media—this should worry us all. As the facts are slaved to current political dynamics, as painstakingly acquired historical knowledges are reduced to sound bytes easily absorbed and edited into a cumulative, teleological narrative of coherent progress, we are unwittingly abdicating rigour from our understanding of what precedes the current moment—a moment that is complex enough, troubling enough, to demand a multifaceted approach to contend with its complexities and, ideally, contribute to our search for a way forward. History should raise questions about the present, and vice versa. In reality answers are in short supply.
The sterilization of the past we are witnessing may not be conspiratorial, a program designed to stultify our potential for progress, but it is collusion of a most insidious order. The same non-localized authority that compels us to participate in structures and systems of exchange that we feel little kinship for is at work in the effacement of the past; but an eternal now where we are constantly in the process of affirming, and then acquiring, what we want is no substitution for a holistic appreciation for all the things that we know, but do not know that we know for certain.