Saturday, February 7, 2009

how the we accrues: a question

What she petitioned for was never
instead of something else
--Levertov, "The Showings: Lady Julian of Norwich"
Last night was dinner and drinks and desert and drinks:

with some of my most favorite people ever, Eileen Joy, Jeffrey Cohen, Liza Blake, Mary Kate Hurley, Meagan Manas, Nicola Masciandaro, Heather Masciandaro, Myra Seaman. Cheap and fantastic indian food (coconut samosa, champagne, beers, strange orange 'custard' with literally no flavor at all), the telephone bar, then closing down the only place around where we could find a quiet table to actually enjoy everyone's company. And, that is exactly what the evening then became about--but of course in a way particular to that variety of citizen we call the academic. That is to say, Jeffrey Cohen started asking serious questions.

And, in the way of academics, everyone had something to say or to ask, or both. I am still reveling in the loveliness of the conversation (instead of reading the 'katherine-group' "Life of St. Margaret), and how damn happy I am that such people are out there and that sometimes they gather. One of the upshots of the conversation pertained specifically to the BABEL working group, and how to keep a community going--how to want to and insist on perpetuating a community--maintaining it across time and into the future while the community remains one because of a strange double belief in the Now and yet the importance of the Past simply for what it was (and yes, I will admit, thanks to MK Hurley that sometimes, sometimes, there is an obligation to undertake the task of 'description' for this very same reason)--maintaining this collective of individuals who are asking constantly what the hell they are doing, together. Particularly, what is ringing in my ears from this conversation is the sense of demanding that we do whatever we do as in and for the world. So the question, in some sense, is how to remain a worldly community. Another thought I had as a result of these conversations that seems to be sticking with me brings out the not-so-closet Derridean in my thought: a tension that arises in such communities between, on one side provisionality and ephemerality, and on the other unconditionality and perpetual memory/absolute hope. One wants everything to be provisional--to be ready to revolutionize at any moment in order to welcome whatever-is-coming in the unbelievable risk of hospitality. One is obliged, even in such provisionality--or with provisionality as one's means, to remain devoted to the un-conditionality of the community, the risk of its openness. Without this, there is no hope of (to be anti-Eleatic) movement, repetition--the movement of the past into the future as the very hope of the new, or the re-newed (I've been reading Kierkegaard--my apologies); no other-as-absolute-other to welcome and make the community worth it (even if it means risking, as Derrida would say, evil). It actually occurs to me then that this is a very old question--at least as old as the 'presocratics': a question of change and movement. The question will called a naive one, but to no avail: I will keep asking it [convinced that--though we may experience it all as just an economy of the Same--we can should and even must hope, must remember and repeat and not just in terms of a recollection of what is know from 'time immemorial.' We cannot learn or form communities of learning around learning when learning means the putting into place of the Same, the recollection of what our 'eternal souls' have known before this incarnation (à la late Socratic dialogues on the eternal nature of the soul). We think we are above this, but whenever our community is about putting the right ideas in the right place, we make a mistake the west has made since the ancients--putting ideas above the world, forgetting the infinite finitude shared by ideas, by communities, just as much as our human selves--or, for that matter, rocks and stones]. We can only form communities as a thing of the world, in the world, for the world, of the material of the world and of learning as a learning which occurs contingently, ephemerally, in the World as an event of the world that also makes the world (where only on that condition (its finitude) does it touch infinity).

So, I'll ask the question, obstuse as it is, that I am leading up to as a question for this community: How is change or movement possible?

Below then, are a few little notes or sketches, aphoristic and incomplete--things I am by no means devoted to and may not believe, but am experimenting with--emerging around this topic of community. And not just any community--this one, this weird community of medievalists, one of whom a few days ago even told a hotel bartender with a straight face that a handful from this community were from the middle ages.. So, these are not even my ideas--not ideas at all. They are of some infinite corner of the world that is emerging between us, dear reader.

A few notes towards a non-ossifying 'scholarly' community:


Unconditional community to shelter provisional work. But two kinds of provisional work: 1. Work which consistently withholds itself, gathering in silence before speech, speech itself. This work is provisional to the extent that it is always--even and most especially in the moments of its speech--enunciated by an elegant uncertainty that it all too often mis-recognizes as timidity. It thinks it withholds speech, in timidity and silence because it can't figure out what it is it wants to say, is too provisional; but in its finest moments such work is not withholding but gathering. This is the sense of the words of Heidegger's "Japanese interlocutor in the 'Dialogue on Language": "
J: Koto, the happening of the lightening message of the graciousness that brings forth.

I:[Heid.] Koto would be the happening holding sway...

J:...holding sway over that which needs the shelter of all that flourishes and flowers.

I: Then, as the name for language, what does Koto ba say?

J: Language, heard through this word, is: the petals that stem from Koto.

I: That is a wonderous words, and therefore inexhautstible. (Heidegger, On the Way to Language , 47).

Even when its speaks, it speaks briefly, clearly, not obnoxiously as if it had earned the right to speak loudly and annoyingly simply by having kept silent. I knows keeping silent is absolutely beyond value, acquires no capital or mandate to be heard once the silence is released as speech that is in turn always provisional. This sort of provisional work, when it speaks, says in such a way that is gathers even in its most timid of sayings, resounding long after--even if in its provisionality it is shortly thereafter retracted. This resounding repeats (not mimicking) as an affective gravitational movement on the level of history which moves forward in time a gathering in the sphere of its hearers, thus a provisionality which in saying is faithful to a community with a kind of unconditional gathering and opening of the community as a saying that is a gathering. This kind of work and its saying is one possible saying then which, in its provisionality, works constantly to forestal the closure of a scholarly community, but without the sort of fear that drives ritual efforts of prevention which, rather than preventing closure and ossification, inevitably grant it a priori, as belonging to their very structure. This is the way of saying that belongs to a particular friend of mine.

2. Work which is constantly speaking, making sayings and statements. This works is always provisional, knows itself to be so. It is ready to betray itself and anything its said at any moment, yet performs its statements as if with absolute certainty, as if to anything it must suspend provisionality and pretend, because otherwise it would say nothing. Such work risks closing any community simply by producing a boundary, a line inside which there are those who have the pre-understanding that these statements are performative, that the work knows itself to be provisional even as it speaks with certainty to such an extreme that it could not dream of taking itself so seriously. To open a community it must leave hints about such saying. If it can do this, it can take constant aim at all the urgent and unpredictable crises that threaten to close a community and, turning on a dime, say something about them. Such saying knows that there is infinite meaning, but operates its faith in such possibility by constantly suspending the serious, as if a student of Erasmus' "In Praise of Folly." It in fact changes constantly its work and the basis of the work--but the nature of the work which gathers such constant saying is a work that works in a shelter of silence given cover by the constant saying--could only risk certain questions which are so improbable and naive if it pretends just for a moment that something might happen (something that matters) and that if it can pretend that this question is the World for the moment--because it knows that the World is what matters infinitely, but that certain questions which matter to the world can only be posed if it pretends, in a pose and just for a moment, that that nothing matters or is serious. The trick is for this work to operate in a spirit of generosity and not a gnostic encoding of secret knowledge only for the initiate--for the pose to provoke but not convince--to be always utterly unbelievable. Again, such aversion to the content of a specific belief moves towards a motion of faith, in which the constant enacting of possibilities consists in the repetition of the community as different, moving into a future.


Faith from nothing vs. belief in something. Start with nothing rather than the something, that assumption that something is there. Not anything to come, just what's here. Worldliness, as in, it matters now. There is no other world, or there is another world, this one. Faith in the movements of so many individual wills that move diversely together in one place that is disseminated, occasionally gathered. This rather than gathering around a belief. Allow the gathering, the being-part-of the gathering as a repetition of the infinite meaning of This World. Absolutely no divinity in this world or any other as the condition of such gathering as the event one might once have called divinity, as the repetition of the infinite meaning of this world. Gathering by and around nothing except the infinite becomings that are the gathering.


Against the sentence: against the pronouncement that ends; sober reasoning well-balanced and organized so as to convince--to deceive; progression of subjectification in which its readers and hearers are deceived into thinking that a period celebrates the completion of a metaphysical movement in which language dominates reality; logo constantly beating down world or trapping its subjects within itself so they cannot access world; the pronouncement of a law which coincides of the originary violence of language itself in forcing something into its proper hierarchized place within the regimes of the Same and recollection; punishment of those who cannot or refuse to know; pronouncement of law which coincides with the violence of ideas that control;


Death is always overdetermined. There are always so many reasons for an event of dying. But the dead one itself is the one not that threatens to ossify the community, but whose memory, if lost, can do just this. What can we not imagine?


From Cole Swenson's "The Invention of the Mirror":

The New World

Used flint
or an obsidian strain.
They had others made of Inca stone
said by Illoa to have been

blue and crossed by veins
that take no polish, that break
in sequence or pyrite
or marcasite
sometimes called the stone of health
worn in a ring
so that with a single downward glance you can be
the infinitesimal:
if in pieces
we are accurate

here the we accrues. (37)


Mo "no future" P said...


Eileen Joy said...

Dan: first, it was wonderful to spend time with you and Meagan in New York, and thanks so much, too, for your reflections here, especially on the subject of community, provisionality, and silence/speaking as forms of shelter for provisional work. Obviously, much of this touches very closely upon a lot of what I have been wrestling with in relation to whether or not BABEL can have any longevity without ossifying into the very thing we work against: the "sentence," as you put it, or hierarchy, authority, established anything. Thanks, also, for bringing up worldedness, or en-worldment, which matters a lot to me when I ask myself why I do anything I do. I remember that when I was in graduate school a chief concern and worry of mine was that there were too many ways in which my so-called "life" [and also "the world"] had to be sequestered or lived & felt outside of my "work"/thought, and then also there are the other binaries that come along in the wake of that like: real/abstract, serious/pleasurable, etc. This always struck me as a problem that needed to be overcome [for me, anyway] if I was going to convince myself to stay in the university and also in the field of medieval studies.

I want to think a lot more about some of what you're saying/provisionally arguing here in relation to "work which withholds itself" and "work which is constantly speaking," but I will say for now that I like what [I think] you are doing here with regard to the ways in which we ought to allow ourselves, and others, to be both:

1) timid with regard to the ideas we want/desire to enunciate in any given moment, and

2) absolutely certain about what we are saying in any given moment [while simultaneously recognizing all statements as always provisional, able to be changed in an instant].

This is very reminiscent of the political theorist Stephen White's "weak ontology": strong ideas, weakly held [see his book "Sustaining Affirmation: The Strengths of Weak Ontology in Political Theory"; the four main subjects of this book are Judith Butler, George Kateb, William Connelly, and Charles Taylor]. It is very difficult, of course, to be both pluralistic in one's orientation and yet, at the same time, want to *stand* for something--to affirm, to believe, etc. Can everything really be provisional all the time, whether in scholarship or life, or in scholarship-as-art-as-life, as I have sometimes put it in the past? But nevertheless, there is much food for thought here, and I for one continue to believe that, yes, BABEL can form [or at the very least *hope* to form] a community that, if its question is always "what does being together mean?" as opposed to, "how do *we* [thought to be a given] sustain ourselves in the face of [fill in the blank here]?", can perform a vital function as regards the development of a profession that might actually have something to do with maximizing personal happiness, aqnd I do not think, as I have said before, that we should underestimate happiness, but only when we understand happiness as a kind of force field of possibility: what happens when everyone agrees that anything can happen and therefore there are no oppressive limits on what, as individuals or together, we can wait for [and where, ultimately, it is in the waiting, and not in the getting, that we really have our fun/get our "work" done].

Thanks again so much for this.

Nicola Masciandaro said...

Beautiful Dan. This is the part that really peals, rings for me: "Allow the gathering, the being-part-of the gathering as a repetition of the infinite meaning of This World. Absolutely no divinity in this world or any other as the condition of such gathering as the event one might once have called divinity, as the repetition of the infinite meaning of this world. Gathering by and around nothing except the infinite becomings that are the gathering."

Nicola Masciandaro said...

p.s. meaning is infinite, facticity is God.

dan remein said...

Eileen: Thanks for the comments. Week ontology is certainly an (ironically) robust way to approach the problem. What you describe also makes me think of a Jean-Luc Nancy formulation:

"Perhaps Democracy, as it expands its form to a global scale, reveals that politics will only be capable of redefining or redrawing itself according to one of the branches of the following alternative: either as democracy founded anew qua religion (God willing or not!(--and in that care, not as the 'theologic-political,' as it were, but as fully theocratic (according to the wont of the fundamentalists)--or as a determinate relationship with a distinct element, or dimension, or some instance belonging to the order of sense, and consequently as a redefinition of the internal-external tension in politics between the governance of society and the projection of its ends of its raisons-d'etre. In the first case, hyperfacism; in the second, a radical invention to be made--a reinvention, perhaps, of what "secularity" means. At the very least, that should signify the following: that politics assume a dimension that it cannot integrate for all that, a dimension that overflows it, one concerning an ontology or an ethology of "being-with," attached to that absolute excedence of sense and passion for sense for which the word sacred was but the designation" (Dis-Enclosure, 5).

dan remein said...


Facticity as god. let's talk on that. it seems to me to actually relate to the big quote from Nancy that I cite above--in that it would entail a certain Risk. Agamben has a strange little thing about it in Homo Sacer in his negotiation of Heidegger's Nazism, and ends up in a place of real ambivelence about the term I think. I'm pretty sure I like the term...but let's talk.