Monthly Archives: April 2008

As I was making notes from Lyotard’s Postmodern Fables (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997) yesterday, I came across a quotation that I flagged but failed really to consider on my first time through the book. It reads, with some of its parenthetical clauses removed, “Just as terror must be excluded from the community, so must it be sustained and assumed in writing as its condition.” As I was reading this for the second time, this association of terror and writing suddenly brought to mind a section from Nelson Algren’s Nonconformity (New York: Seven Stories Press, 1998). I was certain that he too had compared writing to terrorism, so I went back to my notes to see what I could find.

In the event, Algren’s comparison was not of writing to terrorism exactly, but of writing to criminality. He says, “A certain ruthlessness and a sense of alienation from society is as essential to creative writing as it is to armed robbery,” and he quotes Edgar Degas as saying something to the same effect, that “the artist must approach his work in the same frame of mind in which the criminal commits his deed.” Algren, while using the image of the criminal rather than the terrorist, recognizes the same relationship that is recognized in Lyotard’s text, in the lines that Lyotard’s text caused me to remember from I do not now know where, and in various others of the authors I have read, most recently Jean Genet’s Funeral Rites (New York: Grove Press, 1969), where writing is closely associated with resistance, treachery, and criminality.

I do not know whether I believe in this association as categorically as Lyotard and Algren others seem to do. It seems to me that I have, on occasion, encountered good writing that was neither the product nor the perpetrator of a terror. I do, however, recognize a fundamental truth in this linkage between writing and the terrible. I know that I am never free myself of a kind of terror that causes me to choose writing, even while being terrified of this choosing, and I know also that this terror often finds its expression in a writing that is calculated to terrorize. Even more, there lurks in much of what I have read, sometimes deeply hidden, a sense of terror, in the face of the blind and terrible confrontation that brings the author to writing, in the face of the impossibility of writing this terror, and in the face of having to awaken this terror in others, as an alarm or as a warning.

In the past few days I have had two almost identical conversations. The first was on Sunday was with a friend of mine named Amy Hersey, who was very excited to learn that I can and dry produce each year. She wanted to know if she could come help me make strawberry jam this spring, because, as she confessed, her mother had never taught her how to do those kinds of things. Then, yesterday, as I was standing in line at the grocery store, I struck up a conversation with a woman ahead of me, who confessed that she bought boxed maccaroni and cheese because she had not the least idea of how to make a cheese sauce from scratch.

These things alarm me, not because everyone needs to make their own jam and their own cheese sauce, though I think everyone should, but because it is indicitive of how much practical knowledge is no longer being passed from one generation to the next. As our society has increasingly emphasised the importance of formal schooling, and as that schooling has become increasingly directed toward producing members of the professional workforce, the other sorts of learning that used to occur in the home and the neighbourood have become neglected. We have become accustomed to purchasing almost all of our products and services, even when these products and services are entirely inferior to what we could make ourselves. We no longer grow or preserve produce; we no longer cook or bake; we no longer work wood; we no longer sew.

The excuse we give, of course, is that we do not have the time to do these things ourselves, and to some extent this is true. Now that I have two children, I no longer bake bread or make pies as often, and I have never been much of a tailor, even if I can do my own mending. But there are some things that I would not give up, the things that are most meaningful to me, like canning and cooking, and it should concern us, it certainly concerns me, that we are so busy that we can do nothing of this sort any longer, that we do these kinds of things so infrequently that our children never learn from us how to do them.

I began writing this post with the intention of discussing an idea that Jean-Luc Marion presents in his collection of essays, Prolegomena to Charity, a book that I have just completed and that I enjoyed very much. The idea occurs in an essey entitled “What Love Knows”, and it relates to the question of how I discover and determine my ethical responsibility to another, a question that has preoccupied me, if not in those precise terms, for as long as I can remember.

However, because this question does have such a long history for me, and because my thinking on it has been influenced by so many people, what Marion’s essay means for me would be largely incomprehensible unless I were to provide some sort of history of my own response to the problem of ethical responsibility, all of which would be too long for a single post, even in its most reduced form.

So, by means of beginning this personal history, which I will continue over several posts, I will position myself within the narrative of the Good Samaritan, as the rich young ruler asking Christ, “Who is my neighbour?” because I know that the law tells me to love my neighbour as myself, but I am not always certain how to do this. The story Christ tells in reply to my question is masterful in the sense that it undermines my real motive for asking the question, which is to find a limit to how much I really need to give to others, but even when I address this motive in myself, even when I try actively to understand how I am to love in the way the story instructs, I am confronted by the reality that the easy interpretations of Christ’s story are not satisfactory. Traditionally, people have tended to interpret the parable to mean that everyone is my neighbour, or, since this is patently impossible, that everyone that I encounter is my neighbour. This view claims that I must love each person I encounter, that I necessarily bear a responsibility to meet each person’s need. While the unlimitedness of this interpretation strikes on something true, I think, I find, when I try to live it, that it is seriously flawed for at least two reasons.

First, and most obvious, is the fact that this interpretation is entirely impossible. Even if I were to restrict myself to the most obvious needs that I encounter, which I may not do, I simply encounter too many people and too many needs each day to hope to meet them all myself. If I were also actively to discover and meet the needs of those who are not obviously in need, it would certainly be that I would never venture farther than my street corner before my means of assistance, monetary and otherwise, would be exhausted.

Second, and perhaps less obvious, is the problem of how far I need actually to go in meeting the needs of those I encounter. After all, the Samaritan could easily have helped more or less. Would he have been less a neighbour if he had merely bound the man’s wounds and given him food and water without taking him to the inn? Or if he had merely taken him to the nearest town without paying for his lodging? Or if he had paid only for the immediate expenses and not offered to settle the later accounts? Would he have been more a neighbour if he had waited with the man until he had recovered rather than leaving him behind? Or if he had taken the man into his own home rather than placing him in an inn? How, in other words, do I determine exactly what the need of the other requires of me? How do I determine what I need to do to be a neighbour?

It is in this difficulty that I found myself as I tried to understand how I was to love, how I was to be responsible, a difficulty compunded by the suspicion that my motives for asking these questions were less worthy than I was willing to admit. It was not until I read Shakespeare’s King Lear that I began to find an answer, and I will take up that part of this history in a later post.

I held my monthly Dinner and a Doc event last night, screening Laura Poitras’ My Country, My Country (Independent Television Service / Praxis Film Works, 2006). The film follows an Iraqi doctor as he prepares to run in the 2005 Iraqi elections, providing both surprisingly intimate footage of the doctor’s family and more general footage of the election preparations among local Iraqis, private security contractors, coalition forces, and UN election workers.

Poitras’ representation of the complex questions raised by the occupation and the elections is sincere and thoughtful. There is no defense of a particular politics, either Iraqi or American, only a sense of living alongside a family and a nation as they experience how democracy will emerge in their own situation. The fear and anxiety of the people living through these events is clearly portrayed, but so is also is the courage and even the humour, like when the Doctor’s teenage daughter asks that he pay her for her vote, or when a scene of a military administrator casually handing out $80,000 in cash to a contractor is followed by a shot of a helicopter gunner’s helmet, the camera clearly focused on the words “panic button” printed on its side.

One of the themes that Poitras emphasises particularly throughout the film is that of the election as a “show”. She includes several scenes where American or international officials openely use the word ‘show’ to describe the election, and uses one such instance to draw attention to the word directly. The scene is of an American officer training Iraqi police in how to respond to the potential security issues that the election might pose. The officer begins by telling the trainees that “policing in a democracy is different,” and then, referring to the election, he explains that they will have “front row seats to the greatest show in the world.” One of the trainees questions him about his use of the word ‘show’, asking whether the election will be “just a show.” The officer assures him that it will be for real, that it will be “real history,” but the trainee is still clearly confused as to why the word ‘show’ is being used.

What is at issue in this scene, I think, is a difference in understanding about the nature of spectacle. The officer understands the staging that any election entails, the international interest and investment in this particular election, and the degree of mediatization that this particular election is likely to generate. He understands that, to a greater rather than to a lesser degree, the election is a show. Even so, this understanding does not pose a problem to him. His understanding that the election is a spectacle does not prevent him from believing in the election as an election. He may not have believe that it will necessarily produce a good government, but he still believes in the idea of the election as such, despite its spectacular and mediatized nature. He sees no paradox in calling the election both “the greatest show in the world” and a “real history.”

The Iraqi trainee, however, does not understand the nature of spectacle in the same way. He may suspect that the whole election is just a show. In fact, this is his first suspicion when the officer uses the word. However, he does not see how it can be both a show and a real history. The two ideas are separated for him; their coincidence is as strange for him as it is natural for the officer.

Yet, I think that the officer is preparing his trainees more fully than he knows when his first lesson in democratic policing involves the dismantling of the line between spectacle and reality. While all political power, whether democratic or otherwise, is essentailly staged, it is perhaps unique to democracy to admit this and to insist on its validity despite the fact. Where other forms of political power tend to conceal the ways that they are staged, democracy presents itself precisely as a show, but demands that we believe in it nevertheless.

I have been reading Jean-Francois Lyotard’s Postmodern Fables (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), one of which relates to what I am doing, or hope to be doing, with the Luke’s Wiki project that I am beginning on my Moodle site. In “The General Line”, Lyotard talks about the second life that we all maintain, the secret life, the no-man’s-land, that is separated from public life by a “general line”. This general line is what separates the life that everyone sees from the life of the individual, the life of absolute privacy and absolute freedom.

This private and secret life is not a way to conceal something, to hide a secret. It is a way to be alone with myself apart from any secrets that I may be hiding from myself. Lyotard says that the second existence suspends the first “a little; it dwells within it from time to time and sweeps it away, but without one knowing anything about it. The second existence does not really wrong the first one; it opens little parentheses within it.” He goes on to say that “You grant your hours of solitude to that existence because you have a need not to know more. That is how it is that you can encounter what you are unaware of. However, you wait for it. And you can try to make it come. You read, your drink, you love, you make music, you give yourself over to the ritual of your little obsessions, you write.”

This second life is critical to Lyotard because he sees it as being “at the very foundation of human rights.” He argues that it is “the human right to separation that governs our declared rights,” because “rights and respect for rights are owed to us only because something in us exceeds every recognized right.” If, therefore, the general line begins to dissolve, if there is no longer a secret and hidden life, “if humanity does not preserve the inhuman region in which we can meet this or that which completely escapes the exercise of rights, we do not merit the rights that we have been recognized.”

Yet, according to Lyotard, the general line is coming under attack in liberal democratic societies, not from the overt and violent denial of privacy that characterizes totalitarianism, but from a subtle and unrelenting demand that we express ourselves continually, that we give our opinions instantly, that we publish and represent ourselves entirely. “Heavy pressures,” he says, “are put on silence, to give birth to expression.”

All of which leads me to my current project, which, to no small degree, involves the kind of publishing and representing of the self that concerns Lyotard so much. By trying to find a way to present my writing in ways that permit it to be partial, incomplete, varied, and interconnected, I also permit it, in effect, to be presented in ways that are more total and more exhaustive. The more effective the project is, by which I mean, the more completely my writing begins to take place in this other mode, the less of my writing and my thinking remains in the second world and the more it appears in the first.

Lyotard’s concern is one that disturbs me, because it articulates a concern of my own that I have often felt but never been able to verbalize. It is obvious to me that my writing will necessarily differ depending on the audience to which I direct it, that this current mode of writing, intended for anyone who might want to read it, will be very different from the mode of writing in which I conduct personal correspondence or the mode of writing in which I struggle to articulate new ideas to myself. It is for this reason that I have resisted requests from several people to post our correspondence on blogs or other forums. I felt that, somehow, though there was nothing personal in these exchanges, to make them public was to violate a boundary of privacy, the “general line” of a conversation and a relationship, to use Lyotard’s phrase.

I feel much the same conflict about Luke’s Wiki. In most cases, including the short reflections I have already posted, the writing that I wish to present in this format was not intended for a general audience. It is the writing of my second and secret life. Publishing this sort of writing causes me discomfort, not because it embarrasses me, though some of it does embarrasses me for other reasons; rather, it causes me discomfort because it represents a radical reduction of the secret space that makes me separate as such.

After all, will it ever again be possible for me to write in the ways that produced this kind of secret and secondary writing when I am always cognizant that it will likely appear in my first life also. What space does this leave for me to be hidden and separate? This is one of the questions that I think the project will increasingly pose to me.

This is not a blog. After all, there is really no need for any more blogs. There are already substantially more than 100 million blogs on the internet, and almost all of them are saying things that are far more interesting than what I will say.

This is a place where I can think publicly and where others can think with me if they care to do so. It is an amalgam of writings that is concerned, not with entertaining a public audience or with occupying a space within the sphere of the web, but with enabling a different way for me to think together with others, about literature and philosophy, about edible gardens and preserving fruit, about documentary film and open source software, about the many things that I find worth thinking and writing.

It is also a place where I can write, not just as an act of communication, as most public forums increasingly demand of the writer, but as an act of desire for words and for language. The title of this blog that is not a blog testifies particularly to the literary aspect of what I want to do through it. It is from Roland Barthe’s The Lover’s Discourse (New York: Hill and Wang, 1978), and the full quotation reads, “From word to word, I struggle to put into other words the selfness of my image, to express improperly the propriety of my desire.” To me, this space is a chance to perform the struggle that Barthe describes, to write myself, to write my desire for writing.

Of course, it is a blog also, whether I want it to be or not. It uses a popular blog software package, is indexed by technorati, and falls within the distressingly wide and imprecise definition that popularly pertains to a blog. Even so, its concern is elsewhere.