We’ve heard it before: it’s not what you say, but how you say it. As Ken Wilbur writes, “The meaning of a statement is the means of its enactment.” How so many of our authors, our pundits, our scientists– anyone really– forget this simple insight! And yet it rules in the unseen undercurrents of eternity. Nothing could be more important.
I am currently studying in preparation for a conference I would like to participate in. As per usual with the “call for papers,” I must submit an abstract of less than 300 words summarizing my paper. In researching what an abstract should contain, I’m confronted with these requirements: reason and motivation for the research, method of the research, conclusions and importance of the research, etc. Needless to say, when my research increasingly points to a zone of indeterminacy between the ‘ideas’ or ‘experiences’ of death, otherness, experience, u-topia, etc., it is difficult to make myself be so straightforward. Much of even the most right-minded academic philosophical research seems to be corrupted by the ‘use-value’ of the endeavor, and the necessity of abstracts signals it: it allows for the economy of the scholar’s time, for the sifting through vast amounts of journal articles, etc. Also, everyone wants to make their splash, and the cover sheet, along with a pretty CV, is often the road to the best dive. If you didn’t know any better, you could even accuse me of such a thing (if not a downright unwillingness or childish refusal to heed the needs of the institutional authorities); and, it’s true. What is all this writing worth if it isn’t someday read? What is the point of research if it doesn’t mean encountering some other(ness)? But this anxiety over being read, of all this work “paying off,” doesn’t mean I want it to pay off “for me.” The encounter I beg along is what annihilates me.
Here, for me, is the criterion of good research, good poetry, whatever: does it lead you to the point of intense communication, where the very basis of your personal existence is called profoundly into question, and where you even tend to dissolve into the u-topic flux of the future-comings, of the Other-Ways? Without that, it is a bunch of empty platitudes and theories that might get you a long way in the discursive world, but matters little on the messianic scale of eternities. What I’m asking for, precisely, is that we recognize a pervasive discursive ineptitude– an inescapable ineptitude. I’m asking that we pay attention to the “stupidity” of it all– the way that even the most genuine and genius philosophical extrapolations are always partaking in the silence of death (eternity) which comes to meet them. If a piece of writing is to tap in to the u-topic to-come (l’avenir), it’s got to attend to and take account of this: and it’s got to touch the outside of itself, it has to inscribe what matters to it in an inverse or negative way, for what matters here is precisely what cannot be written (not just death, but also love: the whole tragicomic absurdity of human existence).
This points to something else: the necessity of the resurfacing of the reading eye. There is no poem, no philosophy, without the eye-heart (grey sky) that reads it– or rather, engages it, sings it, encounters it, is ravaged, tested, tried and exhausted by it. We have to set these standards high– it points to an ethics of listening to the wholly other, or of strangeness– because we will always be falling short. We must somehow strive to have our words connect up to that very silence that threatens to bring our words to ruin– we must be butt-up against this threat. This threat is the transcendental link between persons, this threat is God, this threat is death– and the gaping zones of indeterminacy here are glaring– this is the threat of becoming ones-self-other, oneself as wholly other. Isn’t it true, isn’t it clear, that discursive ineptitude comes shining through at a certain point, ugly as “all get out”? I have to be honest: it leaves me wondering what good all of it is (aside from just accompanying me on my journey towards myself) (and I speak to myself now, “on my journey towards you”).
I cannot gauge what it “means” or will mean for the eye that resurfaces here (or rather, there, over there). I have long thought that discursive space had to be just empty enough that any existential-personal content could come to fill it, and yet still be emotionally “grounded,” so to speak, in an existence-person. All of my writing is dedicated to this “empty grounding”– being as being-questioned– and none of my writing makes sense outside of it (I am also trying to find some poems to submit for publication, and realizing how difficult it is to take them on their own; as both Spicer and Celan said, the poems need each other, just like people do). But there’s no guarantee that such a discursive space has been created. In many ways, it’s a suicide mission. For the attentive, for the meditative, a simple walk through the woods might offer a grander gift. And yet, something human, something pained, nearly tortured, can be shared. We can bear witness to despair and to evil, and thus become aware of ourselves and our potentials. But this one qualifier applies, and it is as Paul Celan says of poetry: we cannot impose any of these gifts or these attestations, we must be exposed to them (“La poesie, elle ne s’impose plus, elle s’expose”). In short, we cannot impose our approach. If we are to be true to eternity, if we are to let it eclipse us, if we are to open ourselves and others to something of the wholly other, if we are to grant ourselves Nothing, we must be exposed, risked, thrown like die.
I’ve realized, just in the course of this note, something bizarre about an “approach”: it comes to meet us. An approach is not “freely chosen”– even though I navigate its coming-to-me freely. There remains in my approach something of the unconscious, but I yearn to be aware of this unconscious aspect, not to eliminate it, but to bring it to its proper communal light (and I am blessed to lack “priors”). On the one hand, there are all my accidentals, and on the other, there are our accidentals (language included). Where the two meet is a speaking-silence which cannot be deterred. Taste meets terror, the bird meets its cage. And then, as with life, the indeterminacy between “my” and “ours,” not to mention between cage and bird. See, even here, I’m trying to wriggle my discourse into saying something like this: what matters most is to set off searching, to set off studying, and to let this “setting off” dictate things as much as possible. The intricacies of taste and terror will meet along the way, and you will begin “producing.” An approach will flower; but just as a gardener only plants the seed and doesn’t dictate how it grows, neither can we think that it is ‘our idea’ that we study, that we extrapolate, etc. The bloom comes to meet us, as does the latch on the cage, as does the tornado for the storm-chaser. These are things that we discover, that give us a thrill, and lead us on– they approach us, we approach them, and something unprecedented is given a chance to blossom and thrive– an encounter of some sort, with color and pollen, with song, with sleet. This unprecedented thing, which attests first and foremost to these zones of indeterminacy (in experience, in language), is often called “poetry,” but I think it is better called: tenuous but toned attenuation to the rhythmics and harmonics of life, devoted to learning its way out of, or beyond, knowledge of any sort. You can see, I can see, how so many thought-impulses intervene, unplanned though never quite unexpectedly, which change the whole nature of the tract being developed.
And so, you can see the dilemma that an abstract presents, especially when the paper hasn’t yet been written. Perhaps I will do myself a favor and write for it before attempting to write the abstract, as that would allow many of the twists and turns to manifest themselves without being committed beforehand to a limiting trajectory. In the end, the only thing that I can control is my approach to what approaches me!– the problems that my research presents me, as well as to the problem of presentation. It’s most important that these problems lead to (self-)discoveries and to exposures (in the double sense: rendings and renderings). When working with any object of study, it is important not to try and explain away the object, but rather to translate, transmute, and transmit the energy that it has given you, and to let it retain the whole of its unknowability, to not try to collapse it into something “workable.” If the resultant paper/presentation doesn’t carry that energy (that otherness, that utopia, etc.), then it will be a failure– it might be worthy on the market exchange of academic ideas, but in the general economy of life-and-death energies, it will have failed. Perhaps to truly participate in this general economy means failing, at least initially, on the level of the more restricted academic economy of ideas. But it will matter if just one person catches a glimpse and encounters themselves, even if that “just one person” turns out to be “just me.”