The Stranger Day Letter

The Stranger Day Letter

If today were Stranger Day, I would thank you all, from the bottom of my heart, for being strangers. I would even dare to say that you all are “my” strangers, who I am proud to know and love–if the very notion of stranger, the reality of your strangeness to me, didn’t undermine beforehand the possibility of my knowing you, and of your belonging to me. Unless to be my stranger was to be my friend…

So, today–let’s call it Happy Stranger Day!–I thank you, stranger, for being (a) stranger, for being stranger than I or you could have thought strange. I thank you for being my friend.

And you, of course, better than anyone, know how strange this is, how strange I am to you. You have no idea what I am saying or what I am doing! And I have no clue about you. Could it get any better than this?

Well, it isn’t entirely true. You know a few things about me, probably more than I know. And if you know at least one thing, it’s that I spend a lot of time writing. Strange. Couldn’t you say the same thing? What we do on these computers all day is nothing if not strange and “spooky”: reading and writing, communicating and connecting televersally, telekinetically, telepoetically, quasi-mechanically, in digicoded aching feeling, at the border of the virtual and the real–with heart, which is ever more possible–with pictures, text, music, event, updates, groups, you name it! Which is also strange, given how far away we are. Stranger still, because how close! (Like right there, but right away away: but wasn’t it always…?)

But I have some confessions to make: I wanted to create Stranger Day because of a few strangers in my life who “really are” strangers. Who I had in mind were those of you who I have never met, as we still insist on saying, “in person.” I was thinking of Jacob, Aishwarya, Alex, just those freshest in my memory (there’s so many others, and others yet to come, perhaps they’re already waiting to speak up). But as I thought about them today–a lucky one if there ever was one–, “stranger” quickly became stranger, by coming closer. “Stranger” started to encompass, first, all of you who I’ve met so infrequently, and in such relatively “non-intimate” spaces that I would be hard pressed to say we’d “shared real space together” in the normal sense (which again is only the most classical sense of togetherness, and that more than ever needs to be challenged and displaced, today); those with whom my entire relationship–and however slight it is, it is precious–grew up in a virtual, i.e., written, space (a category I would call, for the sake of saving time and to acknowledge a real virtual ally and friend, Jordan). But once I made this step, it was as if everyone slipped away.

Because what about a colleague from Iowa, who I’ve only met in person a handful of times, years ago now it seems, but who regularly saves me from despair and self-loathing through “like-support” and chat (call him Tyler, but I barely know his name)? And then what about all of you who I’ve loved so deeply, who I’ve spent countless hours with and with whom I’ve tried to share everything? You who are with me in my dreams, but haven’t written me in a while or, lets be honest, don’t have time to read everything or write back? All of a sudden it was a landscape of ghosts, of irrecoverable memories. A bookshelf, a wall of letters for the future. A sum of strangers, goners, absentees and abandoners, all of you up to the end unreachable, and thus mourned interminably, from the beginning.

I sat there, alone, heart beating, fingers near spasm, with all of you with me, and yet without all of you forever. Strange, too, as there was so much to read.

What does it mean, today, to meet in person? Aren’t we “in fact” doing it right here? What does it mean, today, to stay in touch? To be in each other’s lives, to be a part of our thinking processes and our hopes? Nothing is more uncertain than the old concepts of proximity and distance, “in the flesh” and “at a distance,” the priority given to nearness and “being in the same physical space.” Of course, it will remain fashionable–and perhaps for good reason, but for what good reason, exactly?–to insist on the importance of meeting “in person,” body-to-body, “in real life,” and so on. But for today, on Stranger Day, humor me a bit and imagine it otherwise. Humor me and think upon the proximity of the absent and the absence of those most nearest. Think of the dead inside you, whose eyes never waver as yours do.

This landscape of ghosts is not as strange as you might think–even if “in reality” it is much stranger.

Because me and my strangers have a different story: ours is a story of writing and reading. Which is to say, of loss and precious traces. Of unknowable periodicity. Ours is a story of “will probably never meet.” Ours is a story of “could not ever meet.” Ours is a story without a shred of contact continuing–save these. To use a tough phrase I’d like to salvage for a different usage, “we are dead to each other.” Strange! As if in this world of reading and writing, it had to be that way, was always that way, will always be that way. As if it were that way for all.

Well, I’ve run over this story before with you, in public(?) and in private(?), repeating myself so many times over that you decided long ago I was obsessed with transience or death or disappearing or what have you. True, and it’s proof that you read me. But isn’t it also proof that I read you? Isn’t it also proof that we were implicated in each other’s speech from the first? That even “in person,” touching body to body, speaking voice to voice, this was a community of vanishers? Of those who belonged to each other without belonging, without lasting together? Without sharing anything, perhaps, but the illegibility of some traces we could never once and for all assign to anyone? The expressions of exposed faces, heads turning? Without sighting anything other but the other’s strangeness, one’s own?

Which is how Stranger Day became everyone’s. I ask again: what does it mean to keep in touch? You’ll think me unique if I say: you have to write me, I have to write you, we have to write each other. But isn’t just me. It’s father and son, sister and daughter. Writing slips into a call, the call slips into a meeting, the meeting slips into an embrace, the embrace slips into life “together,” and that life slips into, was from the get-go… love: dying (with) each other.

Strange, because that’s writing! That’s writing right now too, and I’m suggesting, today, that that’s all we ever do. Writing is a reach outward that never comes true, that never gets back to you. Or if ever it does, you’re not you, but stranger. Writing reaches out to strangers as absolutely strange as you. You, absolutely strange to yourself. Writing: a mourning brawl among ghost-friends. “Life”…

Or perhaps death. And perhaps enemies. You know by now how important it is to keep our distances. Perhaps you’re getting that feeling even now (he’s sickening, he’s killing us, he’s lost tone balance). But my strangers and I knew this from the get-go, without knowing it, and only reading. This respect let us approach each other from the distance of writing (the distance of life and time, no?), which is no doubt the most respectful distance possible, the one from which we all away from each other constantly stood. If, on Stranger Day, I ask you to write me back, or to write a stranger, to spill your guts, I don’t imply that it’s time to do it today. What can I say? It takes a lot of strangeness, and a lot of strangers, to write this way. Which is to say, it takes time, and trust. Stranger Day is a day to honor the time needed and taken, but it isn’t nearly long enough to take it. Perhaps it’s not even long enough to trust. Perhaps it will take years for you to say anything.

But don’t worry, I don’t blame you, I forgive everything, and as you forgave me, for I too am still waiting for something to–be it meaningless babble, signs of the unconditional, manifestations of a promise to write further, to pass on stranger, to survive in each other. And in saying this, I wait for you. Wait, at the end, to wait for you.

So. Stranger/friend, met/never-met, touched/never-touched, touched-deeper-than-touching-without-touching: here we are, or rather there you are, over there away from me, like a stranger, respectfully spooky. It’s better that way, because it’s the only one. We write to where we can’t go, from where we’ve never been, to who we can’t know. That’s the danger of it, the risk. And that’s the love.

With thanks for all of it and for you,
On this holiday of my own light fabrication,
Strangerly yours,

P.S. Go stranger.

You have the right to the pursuit of happiness. Good luck with that, 2009

Image: John Lurie, “You have the right to the pursuit of happiness. Good luck with that.” Accessed 1.26.15 at:

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What, dost thou weep? Come nearer. Then I love thee
Because thou art a woman, and disclaim’st
Flinty mankind, whose eyes do never give
But thorough lust and laughter. Pity’s sleeping.
Strange times, that weep with laughing, not with weeping!
               –William Shakespeare, Timon of Athens

And if levity (“lust and laughter”) were the cause of–our excuse for–our irresponsibility? If the injunction to have fun and “meet” was side-tracking everyone from what they ought to be doing?… All the goofy videos that go viral, the flashy apps that sap our attention on commutes, the ecstatic moments of drunken connection, the knowledge that comes from constant study… What if this veil of conviviality had, since time immemorial, prevented our perception of all the deeper pains? From the old aristocrat to the modern consumerist, all would be united on this front: the possibility of “happiness,” of the orgiastic enjoyment of things, will have blocked out the possibility of responsibility–of disquietude. Those obsessed with such pursuits, with status, sex, money, fame, or comfort–who follow, in a slave-like way, Oscar Wilde’s maxim, “Pleasure is the object, duty and the goal of all rational creatures,” even though Wilde eventually rejected his pleasure-seeking aims and wrote a most ponderous meditation on suffering, in a quasi-Christian conversion that couldn’t be further from the current forms of complacent Catholicism and Christian Hedonism–sit back, attend parties and church services and political meetings as if that guaranteed moral righteousness, love and reproduce as if the family were the ultimate form of community, act  out in the world as if the point here was to make a name for oneself… “Strange times, that weep with laughing, not with weeping!”

I can’t imagine sounding this refrain often enough: “Strange times, that weep with laughing, not with weeping!” Who could still feel innocent in this world? Who could go to sleep with a good conscience? Who could face the everyday without ever-deepening guilt? Who could be dull enough to believe in the goodness of their own position? Those who smile and are proud to be on earth and to be human… Those who fancy themselves just, to be doing the right thing, to be helping the world… Well, I do not cast doubt on it, I do not judge or reckon; I can only judge myself, and I extend myself no benefit. I’ve tried to track it farther, to cut myself less and less slack, but ultimately one only feels more wretched, more selfish, more indefensibly calm and cool in a world of ruins and injustice–more guilty, more indebted. For the best of us have all done much less than the very worst, much less than we know we could have done. This is the only way to respond to a world running dry with laughter: to aggravate our own guilt and hyperbolize the call; to expose ourselves without shelter to a disquietude without respite or relief.

Many exalt failure and obscurity, but do so only to hide away; whereas they ought to say: we have failed ourselves, obscured our own true challenge. We have centered our acts too often on economic exchanges, we have looked for compensation, we have sought approval by others instead of cultivating our disapproval with ourselves. The secret of responsibility lies in this disapproval, in a responsibility that deepens the more you try to respond to it. And such a secret is only possible where one takes oneself to be nothing, where one has given oneself death, the impossible: to know oneself nobody. Degree zero of desire’s exhaustion: to have pity for desire itself, for one’s desires and for all desires, for the confusion and myopia it causes, for all the “laughter and lust” of the self-conception, this inescapable and inexpiable selfishness that haunts even the most selfless act. But it is better–though it counts for nothing–to be haunted by one’s own limitless wrongness and unforgivability for being, than it is to feel “at home” in oneself, comfortable in one’s life choices and the things one has made. You can find your oceanic feeling, your euphoria, your union with nature or with consciousness. Your art, your music, your lifestyle will bring you pleasure, it won’t be surprising. But isn’t that the big farce? That the point is to be satisfied, relaxed, and to find peace? To survive and grow for oneself? “Strange times, that weep with laughing, not with weeping!” Strange times, that fancy it good to be at ease!

“In being as such, there cannot be meaning. Mortality renders meaningless the care that the me takes of its destiny. To posit oneself as ‘me’ persevering in its being, when death awaits, resembles an evasion within a world without exit. Nothing is more comical than the care that a being takes of its being when destruction is certain” (Levinas), but “…I am not going to admit to a fault, I am going to avow a shame without apparent fault, the shame of being ashamed of shame, ad infinitum, the potential fault that consists in being ashamed of a fault about which I’ll never know if it was one” (Derrida): ashamed of these traces you associate with me; ashamed of being unable to erase myself; ashamed of not laughing; ashamed for weeping, for apologizing, for the potentially limitless fault of being; ashamed that we were never quite anxious, never quite responsible, enough; ashamed for having kept to ourselves what should have burst: our life, our experience, our self.

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Words toppled on top of words–to assert what? Everything forgotten? Everything started anew? Origin reiterated? I, upholding my faith in you?–

But happiness leaves no record in the observable universe. Of love there are only traces and welcome tears. A few dice thrown into a pit of unhappiness–the too-much-being of man, of too much hatred. Too much sorrow and misquotation. Too many failed escapes. And not enough confessions. Not enough desperate elation.

What keeps pushing, would keep pushing if I pushed? If I was patient here at the extremest urgency?

A tongue, abandoned in a sand castle, drying up. “I can’t account for the oceans,” said the young one to his mother. “Me too,” she silenced.

I went to close the door, I shuttered, I was late. No one arrived. “I am”: vanishing mediator. How long and about whom, to harp on? When does the day come when he comes soon?

It could be a moment of prayer, an act of faith in a desert not lacking entirely in happiness, in fact hardly lacking in it at all. Writing: a memory for what was possible for it, how many connections it could make appear in a movement. The trace was doubtless doubtless but not there, the experience of one certain doubt. These words, this discourse, do not explain a consciousness but that flitter away. Each line is its own infinitely repeatable singular place, a space other than one and so for the other.

No null occupancy in the staying, but at the same time nothing belongs, we do not fill the place up with anyone. We pass through and pass away, without passing on or getting to. And yet at no point do we turn in circles. Each point is a pivot all its own, nothing comes before it or after it; and yet it is too unstable, too wavering, too spectral not to question its “there.” What is the there of this being-there that is only a passage-point, infinitely divisible, detachable, repeatable, programmable, reproducible, while also singular at each occurrence, at each return, a micrologic of divine machinery-itinerary?

Deep in oblivion, we are operated upon by machines we belong to, but none of them belong to us; we match this with our own oblivious prayer, which we send out to the void no less mechanically.

Nothing adds up, nothing can be remembered– how many times can that be repeated?What does it mean to be said each time? Something so different no one could repeat it.

“I will try to see to it…” Imagine this word arriving unfinished to the head, silently it would seem, but making its appearance known, to haunt us with all that we ought to see to, but can’t hardly, not knowing how to see. “To see to it”: to ensure it has been done, to make sure it is taken care of, to notify the proper people, to make things clear, visible, apparent, present, known to all those involved, to oversee the progress of its accomplishment and the process of its carrying-out. Who could even begin with that here?

Question of the line, of the election of its trajectory, of any appropriation of its establishing force whatsoever. (Then again, how would one not rest there?)

Everything over-reactive, everything attractive, grabbing, everything fantastic… disintegrates in the mirror shattering, itself a fable. We believe mistakenly that the blood on the shards is our blood. We believe rightly that we are among the ones cut.

Cut off from… “seeing to it,” cut off from getting there, from organizing things correctly, to giving things the right titles or names, to making anything our own and proper. We ought to recognize “in this desert” that it all begins here where no assurance in the plan fore-thought can be attained–where night endlessly redoubles on night, without light or darkness. It could be an adventure, it could be a non-stop; or it could be full stop every way.

A string of eloquent equations, or an infinity of infinite letters?

Infant country, endless age?

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You, ordeal of writing, I prolong by putting off, put off by prolonging.

I began once, started off, squared up to the impediments, and like reaching through glass buried my hand into your heart of gold cinders. Poetry was the blood ocean, but that is not why I reached. One reaches down to think, to allow the other in its singular occurrence to come. Thus the avoidance: every mark means an encounter of the self with the unexpected, with the inappropriable, with what interrupts the self and disjoins it from itself; wounds it, “gives it a cut to itself.”

This strike down of the penman by the pen is interminable. The break that can’t be spoken speech calls for. Whoever suffers it is not one. “It just exists, we don’t think it out, we speak the failure of trying to speak it, we speak what is coming in the unworkable instant.”

–What it takes is a faith in the end coming now in the different beginning, in the form through which passes the irruptive force or power of “eternal life”–that which is not mine, was never mine, and if mine, is only mine in the other’s, mine shared with what is not my life, such that “me,” “I,” am pushed all the way to the other side of life, of myself, of the power that is the self of life, into the end, the finalized expropriation, which comes this split second in coming imminently, this death that I am to be.

“To be”: this death that I am and will be. It is the proximity of justice, running with a wild head off.

You, gasping idiodyssey of writing…

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Phrase of Promise

An honest phrase embarrasses because it reveals a ghost: the honest one at the time may not recognize himself in his own phrase afterwards, having had more time to go honest, and therefore to negate what last he’d said. Not because he means to take it back, but because the time between has urged him elsewhere, to a new enactment of the promise, to bring it to bear again where it can never find its bearings, can never bear itself. But then his prior promise–his prior thought–never ceases to haunt him with its wrongness, asks him ever after what it means. Add that there is no evidence of its enactment–not even yet–and the subject of the promise finds himself confounded, indirected: the promise is broken, and so must be broken, in order to be kept,  safe but broken.

As if only broken was the promise listened to, where the listening couldn’t hear a voice, and injury was the rule. What’s furthest inside that act then becomes less hidden, while the ability to phrase what is promised becomes minimal–not because the language becomes less accurate, but because it has to cast aside its shield of honesty. (To the point that the one who speaks the thing only will have spoken it, again is ghost; and if it speaks now, it does so only as a haunting of the present by a time outside it, absolutely so, to the point of being untouchable by anyone anymore, save in the slim access of the instant.)

Such is why discourse must be construed as the residue of an act, where the sum of spoken phrases is like a film of what the act promised. The latter of course cannot be more precise than that; there is no more unity to a body of phrases than there is to a real one. The phrase is the very location of its shattering, the promise the stretch of a skeleton–an image of death’s presence in the promise making clear: there is no image of it, no saying of the act, no more than the act has an end outside its promise(1). The phrase shows every inscription (every consequential act, every trace) to be at odds with the reality to be written, the reality to be acted upon. Time remains out of joint– the time of the act and the promise, and the time of its enactment in the “real.”

Because what is promised can’t be determined. It can never be said to have been phrased, to have been acted out. One can only make it again–making it a phrase to be shared, received, rephrased, made out.

Nothing of the shared sense craved or felt in this rift fits into any cognition without loss, since the craved sense is the very one that falls through. The phrase of promise is there to interrupt cognition’s course and strike across meaning’s banner–making meaning the shared act it always is, if it is. Non-knowledge does not sanction ignorance; it is simply an orientation to the fact of nothing revealed–that we cannot know or inscribe in any fashion: the relation to the world that we are and act as possible (indeed, right where we are not able to)–where we were nothing and yet did not go away, having never arrived at all yet.

The act that lives on as interruption, as the promise of interruption, being “of” interruption: the communist Idea. It lives on, not because it took effect with words or without them, not because they affected reality this way or that, but because of how word and act were one in the promise, and because the promise promises more than past action: it promises us that it has not yet been.  What the words, flat and dead, promised, had to be interrupted by the promise itself, had to remain open there, interrupted, enacted outside whatever present, being present only when the promise was refreshed, when the act was re-enacted, that is, when the Idea was re-affirmed and the promise “kept.”

Promised, yes, in terms of an Idea (“common”), but an idea that is an action, a promise where remembrance and reenactment are one. The promise is fulfilled by promising itself again, by dwelling in the power to promise. One can only try to be faithful to this point of contact, for every phrase is potentially “unfaithful.” But the leap required to like the situation to the promise, at every moment, is so great, so fleeting, that it is impossible to say when the leap began or where it led to. And we have no power to make that leap; we can only promise. The burden rests on the judge who can only judge his own judgments, since there he judges his own relation to himself, to the blip that he is, as promised: to what extent am I what I am? to what extent am I the opened other?

The point of contact will have been there, where the point collapses in a night of promising words. The traces of the contact will not adequate what the act was in it, what its decision was made of or for. But reality doesn’t exhaust the decision, no more than the outcome validates the promise. Nothing can erase what’s promised. Existence makes it possible again that the promise will have been opened to, and it does so promising itself again and again, inheriting all the old promises and choosing among them, undoing some and saving others–undergoing the interruption it’s devoted to, in the real of an instant that escapes.

What is there in the phrase of a promise or in an honest act (whatever they may be) cannot ever be whittled away. Although the phrase captures the promised act in a state that comes out past, skeletal, irrelevant, for the very same reason the phrase–emptied of everything–retains the one thing it aimed to retain: not its meaning, but its meaning to mean, even in meaning to mean nothing at all, or even: its joy at meaning (nothing), its joy at sharing sense; its joy at keeping the promise to act in common, exposed; its joy at thinking “us.” Because the interruption of the “proper” lies at the heart of the act, it is fundamental to the commons that its Idea remain promise; and it is joy to the extent that the promise happen, in the absence of anything common but the swirl of acts and phrases.

That such joy is not anyone’s possession (this is an Idea of the commons), that it does not lie on the side of language, reality, identity, or meaning, cannot in fact be established, is exactly what the phrase of promise is destined to prove.


(1)  Or rather, the only image of the promise is at the same time an image of “death”: of a sudden halt, where cognition tips over into what can only be called an impossible feeling of the commons (in the same way that, for the subject of psychoanalysis, the real is the impossible); an image wherein the intellectual operation, in a sense, completes itself, while returning to an origin point that lies outside it, that comes later in its very completion and coming-to-a-close. A dialectical image, wherein both the movement and the stilling of thought are “filmed,” that is, “crystallized” into a monad (a surface reflecting the “real”). In the structure of such an image, one recognizes a sign of a messianic halting of happening [das Zeichen einer messianischen Stillstellung des Geschehens]. This “sign” could, perhaps, be understood along the lines of Kant’s Geschichtszeichen, as Lyotard describes it, an “interfaculty point of passage,”

…that does not take place, that is in the course of coming to pass, and its course, its motion, is a kind of agitation in place, within the impasse of incommensurability, over the abyss, a ‘vibration’ as Kant writes, that is, “a rapidly alternating repulsion from and attraction to one and the same object.” (Enthusiasm, p 32)

Such an image–sign, form, phrase–would be part of a series of passages that never became any more possible, remained impossible; they would give an illusion of diachrony to what could properly only be felt “synchronous,” namely, this halting of happening: the Raum of another time, a paused time, a “dead time”: time without work proper, a time to undo works, a time to rethink the promise.

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Just Listening

When I was in college I became interested in the question of “listening,” in relation to both “religious callings” and “poetic dictation” (“Pneumatology as Listening” was the name of my major). In some authors, listening meant something like tuning in to the present, into an awareness of God’s voice in reality, of how the divine is “speaking” to humanity. In others, what was at stake was something more like “literature.” But they both shared what quickly became for me the question of the other. The question of listening is a question about the outside, the unfamiliar, the strange and foreign–even if this “outside” seems located in my very breast and head. Listening concerns receptivity to the other-than-self, to that which exceeds the ego and all its representations. In its most refined forms, it implies becoming an antennae for the invisible, a microphone for the unsaid–or to put it more religiously-poetically: to feel the spirit in the breath, to hear God speak in presence.

For me, the difference between a religious vocation and a writing practice could never be decided out-and-out: both had too much to do with this question of the other, and, in my experience at least, the other does not allow us to choose one way or the other. But they both also had ways, it felt, of repressing or sidestepping the purity of listening itself. The choice for religion puffed up “one’s own being”; the choice for writing, “one’s own voice.” They both over-wrote the listening, dramatizing it into an “ordeal” (I’ve done my share of this…), whether it be a spiritual one, waiting on God’s voice, a literary one, waiting on “inspiration,” or some other mix of amplification disorders and fuzzy signals. (I dispense with the objection that writing is not waiting but work. It’s true, but it is just as true in spirituality. As much as either works, it waits. There is a kinship between the artistic Nulla dies sine linea (no day without a line drawn) and the idea of “praying without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17): both imply applying oneself to a failure of representation to establish the connection between self and other. Both recognize that any sure link is impossible, that love demands work (writing, prayer), demands erasure and spacing: to make room in oneself for what is not one, not “one’s own,” to act instead as a medium for something “excessive,” however unknown, to grant the One+.)

It was not a question of the religious or aesthetic interpretation of this phenomenon, but what made it possible. Now, it became clear that every writer had his or her own way of making this clear, and this “way” was the work itself. The relation to the other is never incidental to the identity of the text–no less than to that of a person–because it makes it possible. And yet, among them all one found certain overlapping “concerns”; what Paul called kenosis and Keats negative capability: something like an emptying of the self for the sake of letting “in” the other in, for letting something pass through beyond the filters of cognition. The glorification accorded to authors seemed to mimic that once accorded to Jesus: one is glorified to the extent that one empties oneself to be refilled by otherness. Praise went to those “animated” by the Outside, those passive passionates, and those who practiced best were the saints and poets for whom practicing meant “death.” Something spoke through them at the exit of themselves, and while it was obviously in no way the same “Outside” calling and shaping them all, it was clear that in every case a receptive “being” was called to receive something that was not and could not ever be its own. (I put “being” in quotes because ultimately it isn’t even that clear.)

Soon, reading took on another function. It was no longer to understand the author’s ideas, to track concepts, to enjoy styles or verses, or even to be inspired by the voice through the intermediary of the text. I no longer heard an author’s voice but simply some relation to an outside, reflected in words. It was that other that I longed to hear, that other other. The decisive question became: How much power does the author imagine they have over it? How far do they go in the direction of powerlessness before it? How much do they pull back and reinstate, for themselves, a power? Should we interpret this grab as a defensive reaction to a lack of it? And what about those who go the furthest into that lack?

These are the questions that drive to the heart of writing and identity–to the heart of any listener. What power do we have over listening? What do we attribute to ourselves of what we hear, what do we attribute to otherness? How do we make this attribution, what kind of negotiations do we make? It is undeniable that everyone navigates this question, because the outside always insists. But so do we, however uncertainly. What can we tell from this friction–from the insistence of an identity rustled through by otherness, by language and this outside that resists it?

Here is the spectrum I have in mind to help us consider all this: it stretches from a total appropriation of and identification with the Power that fills (thus endowing it with being), to the powerlessness that results from a total incapacity, dispossession or non-hearing (thus losing of every notion of the Powers). We always begin from zero, but we all people the void in differing ways (all imaginary, if we ask Simone Weil), according to the different ways we “find ourselves” capable or incapable of doing so. How does one relate to one’s own “power”? Does one comprehend it as one’s own? Does one comprehend it as a power at all? How does one consider “what one can”?

I have–perhaps unfairly–taken for granted that the division between religious calling and poetic dictation was superficial, that there was always something of the one in the other because both have to do with listening. The decisive factor turns out not to be what the author professes in terms of themselves, their own lives, their beliefs, or what they think they are doing, but their relation to the outside: their relation to their own blindness. Who takes care of this blindness and how? Who gives this lack, this darkness,  its due? And what would it mean to? (Perhaps it would lead us to not say anything. Perhaps it would lead us to Derrida’s expression: pardon de ne pas vouloir dire, sorry for not meaning…)

Our culminating question is a simple one: how presumptuous is our author? Upon affirming that there is nothing to hold on to, how far does one go in trying to hold on to something? A question of conscience: what is the justice of the host? It is here that writing and prayer are irreversibly merged.

My hope here has been to suggest that there is a continuum between a total presumption and a total lack of one. The one fills up the lack of power with the radiance of a full, sagely voice, a divine presence which it hears intimately and speaks empowered; the other honors a lack of power through the pain of waiting and listening and hearing nothing to be heard. In my eyes, that could be a criterion of justice, if only it weren’t the ultimate presumption to think that one knew how to tell it. And yet we must try to tell it, however impossible. And we can tell the justice of something by how the other was dealt with or left out of the deal–that being what the thing, it being only a host. A host for what? The other.

And now is where we have to say: an other that may not be. The other is never there like something to grab hold of, to see or to hear. The other that we listen for is not known as present. Nothing is ever there to guarantee it. Otherwise, it would not be other.

And so, to cut to my tentative hypothesis: to presume that one is listening in for the Voice of Being, that one would have a direct connection with God or the Law, with the script of History or with the will of the Muse–all this is much too much for the other, over-writes everything and makes way for every injustice. This implies believing in the being of books and authors. To do so, to presume any being whatsoever, does not automatically make one a bad host (we all do it, obviously); but it does show a kind of blindness to being blind. It covers up the dissymmetry between the call and the one called, forces too much about the relation, such that even to “bear witness” risks corrupting the witnessing, risks sullying it with intentionality, identity, argument–presumptions to be, to be “in the know.”

Of course, to root the question in “one’s own being” is not surprising: how could I listen if I were not there? How could I keep from saying, “Here I am”? How could we, waiting, not think we were waiting on the Voice of Being? How could we, responding, not think we responded with “our own voice”?

And yet, if we look closely, it has never been that simple. Perhaps concerns about “being” do not guide but shipwreck listening. Perhaps it marks a failure to listen, a will to forget right where one appoints oneself the bearer of Remembrance. Perhaps prophetic hearing always gets lost in professing what’s been Heard, gets lost giving it substance or power. Who would write without this illusion? And yet what great waiting is not foregone when we fall prey to it! What an injustice to stay hush about the silence, the lack and the uncertainty over what escapes things and words and human categories, to say nothing of the anxiety that nothing may happen, that one may very well be waiting on what will never be there–save in the obligation to listen, in the listening itself.

To ask how presumptuous an author is, is to ask what they presume and presume to be. We are all presumptuous, then. Something always comes to compensate for the hole in hearing; in a way, it is the writing itself. What we have here is a kind of indebtedness that can never be remissed; or as in Kafka’s story, a law of listening where no law is ever given. A door of listening has been opened for you alone; only when you have heard everything that there is for you to hear will it close. And so there is no way to get your way past its very opening–listening, no doubt silently, or in prayer.

Let me quickly return to the old post mentioned initially, itself a good example of unjust presumptuousness, Adi Da and the ‘Radical’ Truth. Recalling it sparked a funny thought–that Adi Da’s and Heidegger’s discourse are not so far apart, precisely in connection with their “presumption of being.” My reference above to “listening to the Voice of Being” was meant to call up Heidegger along with the whole metaphysics of the voice; but it struck me as best illustrated by Adi Da’s hyperbole, representative for many forms of “speaking as the enlightened.” I quote only a small passage from his spiritual autobiography, The Knee of Listening:

In every apparent conditional state, I remain Aware at the Free “Point” in the bodily apparent heart, unbounded in the right side– non-separate and indivisible. Prior to every apparent conditional state, I remain As the One and Only and inherently indivisible Conscious Light, always already above and beyond all-and-All (and As That in and of Which all-and-All potentially arises). Everything only appears to me– and I remain As I Am. There is no end to This.

I do wonder what Heidegger would have thought of a text like this! which not only claims to hear the Voice of Reality but to speak it, to Be the speaking of It, to be at one with the destiny of Consciousness. Here we have someone who burst rights past the door of the law and melts without residue into the “Bright” inside: he identifies with a clearing so wide it embraces every heart imaginable; with the Form underlying the conditional; with the one and indivisible beyond the all-and-All, supreme Being; the God of “presencing” itself. Such excesses would not be possible without presumption, which can (and maybe always do) assume guru-proportions. But however crazy Adi Da may sound, doesn’t he show how presumptuous we all can be? Especially if we take ourselves to be messengers–of Being, Beauty, Bliss, Truth, History, Us, whatever? Isn’t the greatest temptation to say, “I am love”…?

I have not meant to ridicule any of the listeners, only to draw up some affinities and differences. Identifying with the voice, “I am love,” only shows how close one feels to the one who calls. So close that we can barely refrain from endowing that caller with being. So close that we fall into that being and feel merged with endless love in responding to the call by sounding love’s claims. I don’t want to discount this experience; I know it is part of the phenomenon of resonating with the other–is its resonance. I only want to follow Lyotard’s analysis (in Heidegger and ‘the jews’) and stake out another claim: that by endowing the other with being, as much as by letting ourselves think that we have actually heard anything, that there is “good news” to shout, we cannot help but slip into a betrayal of listening. That would be the sum temptation: to forget that something remains unheard in hearing. To honor this fact–remembering that one always forgets that nothing is heard–would be just listening.

Back when I was first writing about these questions, I dreamed of a text that would not say anything, but that would be “listening” itself. It would insinuate itself into the reader’s being so deeply as to utterly undo it, to make it hear all the “deeper calls” of itself. It would introduce into the soul a movement of pure diremption, cutting itself off from itself, from every source of being, while calling it back to presence as that which was purely outside of itself. It would achieve a state of resonance with the question of the other (of “alterity”) and would “be” nothing but its call–a kind of written listening meant to simmer in what calls to it listen before writing, with its back to all writing. A just summons, before anyone took the stand.

Perhaps what I have learned since then is that this desire to write listening betrays its law. It has to admitted that it cannot be written. Otherwise, it couldn’t be written. Because it is not just something that cannot be represented here; it is just listening, which procures for itself no resources over time, does not once encode itself in rhyme, it does not reason. And it does not predicate, it does not inscribe anything in memory.

As writing, it is interminable; listening never comes through. As listening, it is instant; writing doesn’t do. It is not there. It waits.  And so it remains: just listening.

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Beginnings began begun

Some recent readings have led me to some thoughts about “beginning.” The first comes from an untranslated lecture given by Peter Sloterdijk, Zur Welt Kommen – Zur Sprache Kommen (Coming to the World – Coming to Language). My German is not good enough to read it with much accuracy, but here is my rough translation of an early, key passage:

An author, I said, begins with himself, in that he exposes himself; but he is only able to expose himself because he has already been exposed.

The verb “expose” is used here to translate sich aussetzen, also “to set out,” meaning that we could also translate the passage like this:

An author, I said, begins with himself, in that he sets out; but he is only capable of setting out because he has already set out.

Sloterdijk then continues:

If we wanted to go in search of an absolute beginning, we would lose ourselves in that groundless movement the logician knows as infinite regress. To deduce a first, spontaneous beginning would be as difficult a task as asking the devil to spin a solid rope out of sand. Not only that, it would also be a superfluous requirement. It is enough for an author, as for the rest of those who exist, to step into his or her on-going beginning, so as to catch up with his or her on-going existence… For us, the real beginning is never there except as in the results of already-being-started.

I would like to pair this passage with some remarks recently given by Jacques Rancière at a conference in Dublin titled, “The Pedagogics of Unlearning”:

There is no adequate guide because there is no right point of departure and no right order. The whole is everywhere… The book that is in your hands is a whole from which you can discover your own capacity of making an infinite number of connections, hence your capacity of making links and making wholes in general. (18:25)

Let me sum up the early portion of Rancière’s talk, in anticipation of applying it to this question of beginning. He starts with two remarks by Jean Cocteau: 1) “Everything is in everything” and 2) “Learn something and relate everything else to it,” in accordance with the principle that all intelligences are equal. First, “everything is in everything” is lodged against the idea that there are some who see the connections of the whole and others who do not, i.e., the principle of inequality between intelligences, where those who are supposed incapable of “seeing the whole” must bind themselves to superiors who do. Second, “learn something” is opposed to “learn such and such a thing”: the one says that “from anywhere you can go anywhere,” that what matters is that something be learned, less than “what” or in what order; the other says there is a definite starting point and a definite order of progression in the things to be learned, again presupposing a privileged position that would know beforehand not only all the connections of the whole but also all the steps the “ignoramus” must take in order to gain that knowledge. It implies that there is a tried-and-true method that the beginner must take in order to rise above beginner status; and it implies that there is a knowledge of the whole that can only be attained through this method. For Rancière, this well-accepted notion of pedagogy embodies inequality, whereas the “learn something” aims at the emancipation of all intelligences as equal. (Listen to the rest of the talk for all the nuances here.)

Now, what I want to suggest is that we have all, to some extent, internalized the drama–and with it all the fear and doubt–that Rancière is describing. We imagine that we have to know beforehand where to start and where we need to end up; but since we don’t know this, we feel dependent on something or someone external to tell us where to start and where to head. We wait forever for the “go ahead,” we never feel adequate in relation to the possible knowledge of the “whole.” For example, someone who has not studied philosophy compares herself to those who have and thinks, “Well, this is impossible, I will never catch up!” This comparison is the “opinion of inequality” in action. We find ourselves saying, “I’ll never get there,” as if the point were to reach the same place as others, as if the goal were to be on an equal level with them in terms of “knowledge”–as if our intelligences weren’t already equal! We find ourselves saying, “I don’t know where to start,” as if it were possible to know “where” or “how” to start–save by starting somewhere.

This “I don’t know” is tied to another uncertainty: “I don’t know what’s being asked of me,” or even, “I don’t know what I want from myself.” Again the beginning is paralyzed because we think we must know this beforehand. We remain dependent on something else to give us guidelines, reasons, and criteria for beginning. And so we alienate ourselves from both the end and the beginning, the purpose and the way, because we do not believe we have it in us to make a “correct start.” And so we never do, but only get dejected, distracted, and disappointed in ourselves.

Extending Rancière’s comments on Cocteau’s motto of “learn something,” we should at least affirm that (1) there is no correct place to start (all beginnings can give equal access to the whole) and (2) there is no correct goal to aim for (no “knowledge of the whole” is given beforehand to attain; the point is to realize ones own capacity to make connections and wholes). But, in addition to this advice (start anywhere, there is no “starting point,” all starting points are equal, etc.), we must add Sloterdijk’s, (3) that you are started. Not just that you “have started” (Angefangenhaben), as if starting were something you did in the past, but that you are started (Angefangensein), that you are starting, presently. Given the way this throws us back on ourselves, on our being-ahead-of-ourselves, we might even say: you start before you started starting; you started starting long before you started to start…

That last sentence sounds strange, and for a reason. We do not easily comprehend or believe in our “being started,” and sometimes we need odd phrases to think through this odd temporality. I titled this piece, “Beginnings began begun,” for this reason: it says that, yes, we start started, and that yes, our starts start started. In Being and Time, Heidegger is forced to devise a long compound word to express this fact: we are always already oriented “toward” our own potentiality-to-be, by the very fact of being-there: Sich-vorweg-im-schon-sein-in-einer-Welt, being-ahead-of-itself­-in-already-being-in-a-world (§41). Because we care about our potentiality (and this care structures our being), long before we “understand” our potentiality we are sich-vorweg, “ahead of ourselves,” projected into possibilities and into the future. We have already left behind countless tracks and traces of our own concern for ourselves and our world, and so for our future, which is then always already coming toward us to meet us. We began begun in the beginning.

Of course, many things make us doubt the validity of the tracks we’ve laid, including the “opinion of inequality” Rancière critiques. They make us doubt whether our starts are real or “false.” Or they distract us from seeing them at all, from keeping in tune with our own care for ourselves, such that we forget how much “on our way” we already are. Then we look for a devil who might turn sand to a solid rope. We look for a “new start,” instead of picking up what’s started.

I write this because of how much time gets wasted waiting to begin, and because of how many potentialities thus go undeveloped. I only want to suggest that we will never know “how” to start and don’t need to, and that therefore we should feel free to start anywhere. But I also want to suggest that, in another sense, we always “know” how to start, because “the beginning itself began begun.” Down to our very ontological ground, I’m tempted to say, we are our beginning, our being-begun. We do not come with pre-fabricated ends and purposes, with a horizon of usefulness and knowledge to attain; and long before we are this or that thing, this or that person with this or that quality, attribute, or skill, we are (the) beginning (of) ourselves. This beginning is not “owned by” or “owed to” any cause but our own potential-to-be. Being the beginning of ourselves ourselves, we are the end and purpose to start, and we are already “being” that start. And because every beginning begins equally with that cause long begun, perhaps we ought to see everything we do, every activity undertaken, every word spoken, as such a beginning, as a repetition of ourselves as beginningalong a long trail of beginnings long begun.

Perhaps “ethics” is to hold to that beginning that we are, that potentiality-to-be, and to reach for it as to reach for our very selves, for our very being-in-the-world. Because in truth, where are we if not there in what we started? And where else will we ever be, but there, at the start–the started start, the future that we are, the future that we always will have been?

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