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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