the why of non-reading and why i’m still a mediocre non-reader

Not sure I ‘d ever find the exit again

Been thinking a lot about reading lately — mostly as I ‘ve not been able to do much of the reading I wish to.  I tend to go a little crazy in-between reads, but then there’s a certain craze always in my process as a reader.  Theoretically, or imaginatively, I intuit that there is no reading without purpose.  Sadly, my purpose is occasionally only to say that I have read.  But what does that mean?

***

What I think I think about reading~

**

How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read gave me a few categories for non-reading which help me think about reading more clearly.  The vast majority of what we read fades into the recesses of memory — often to unrecognizable forms.  They become part of our ‘screen books’ in which our readings serve our own purposes.  I try to be honest — most of my ‘author’ial citations are for the purposes of establishing my own view’s authority.  Author-authority — I ‘m engaging in some measure of an argument from authority when I cite my interpretation of X.

And our society engages in a goodly measure of this activity.  It even leads to pseudepigraphal (mis)attributions which are patently false.  C.S. Lewis, St. Augustine, Einstein, Sherlock Holmes (‘elementary my Dear Watson’), St. Francis of Assisi (‘Preach the gospel always and, if necessary, use words’), Marie Antoinette (‘Let them eat cake’…was Rousseau and quite possibly speaking of another dignitary), or (of course) Mark Twain.  Why then is this the case?  The best I can offer is that if we hear an idea, and it sounds particularly appealing, we are most willing to accept its authority if we can find a suitable authorial source.

listen to him

~~~

One of my favorite authors says, more or less, that we ought to affirm an idea based on its truth rather than based on its source and reject an idea for its untruth by the same measure.  You can see that I ‘m not willing to let the author go, but I am willing to affirm that we are the active agents in discourse — we are the ones expressing our sentiments and seeking to show their solidity.  I recommend three items (you might suggest your own) as I have struggled with this thought:

  1. thoroughly consider why you think this is a helpful concept (so examine thineself)
  2. if you can’t find the source (in an actual book or article), let it stand on its own
  3. before filling out the citation line, give pause one last time to see whose purpose you ‘re serving by attributing this author’s voice to this idea

***`

See, there ‘s some problem in that we limit authors to a certain location in our discourse as a society.  They occupy this space and no other.  E.g., it is shocking to some evangelicals how un-evangelical C.S. Lewis really is.  Or, Bertrand Russell is afforded a certain role as a genius.  This may be the case, but I personally have n’t found his works helpful or challenging toward helpful ends.  If the author is n’t given a chance to surprise us, as real people so often do, we are treating them as points on a spectrum (and stationary points at that) and they are less likely to rock us off our base/to challenge our pre-supposed view of reality.  Therefore, we have to be careful to allow the writer to be the author to some extent — let her or his words speak in this space and interact with them in that space (even challenge why they chose this space).

It is in this sense that we too ought to approach reading as authors.  Reading should not be a passive activity, for then it is only an act of memory.  We should instead be able to not only interact but interact critically with those whom we read.  Such an approach does justice to the fact that we are operating in discourse as well.  Otherwise we too fade away as the reading passes into inaccessible memories.

**’***’

~What my reading actually looks like

*`**

But further, my external philosophy of reading conflicts with my motivations as a reader.  I want to do justice to the author, but I ‘m also looking for thoughts I can use.  Even though large portions of the book won’t prove useful, I still hold onto this fear that I ‘ll miss something important if I do n’t read every word.  While I know that I will remember impressions rather than words, I still find myself racing through pages in the interest of saying that I have ‘read’ this work.  For reading is the means by which I establish myself as an authoritative critic.

As I suggested, I give the author a chance to surprise me; but too often I judge myself as a reader based on whether I have completed every page (and forgotten its contents) rather than what thoughts I have gleaned and meditated fruitfully upon.  The latter are the very purpose for which I read, but I still fall into the trap of reading for completion.  The quantitative overrides the qualitative and I ‘m left with another forgotten book and not enough to say.

Am I reading to say I have read, or to encounter ideas and be changed by them?  This has rightly bothered me in the last few weeks, but I ‘m not sure I ‘ve come much closer to any form of an answer.  I can only say that I am better aware of some mis-purposes my reading may serve and that I wish to continue reading despite this.

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…or I shalt be subjected to conflagration

Sources for misattributed quotes:

  • some famous ensamples: http://theydidnotsay.tumblr.com/
  • egregious and harmful examples: http://onviolence.com/?e=225
  • Wiki’s offering (everything from minor errors to major blunders; I ‘m most interested in those which fit the category of mis-attribution because this calls into question the relation of assertion and the authority of the asserter): http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/List_of_misquotations
    • I could n’t find examples I was thoroughly satisfied with here.  Perhaps you, as the critical reader, can provide help in this matter.  I ‘m looking for anything relating to what it says about a society when misattribution is evidenced.
    • case study of something C.S. Lewis did not and almost certainly would not have said: http://mereorthodoxy.com/blog/you-dont-have-a-soul-cs-lewis-never-said-it/

On Non-reading:

A fellow addict:

http://apilgriminnarnia.com/2012/09/06/booklove/ (reminds me of the sad priest in Les Miserables who I commiserated with as he sold his last tomes…but then Les Mis was an extended series of miseries)

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Disputatio

Last week’s Christian mini-blog war provided an interesting case study. First, it illustrates how language meant to serve your purpose can serve the opposite purpose just as well or better. In such cases where our words ‘get away from us’ how ought we to respond? We start engaging in a cost-benefit analysis: who is being helped or harmed/what truth is being defended. Of course, in being misunderstood the line blurs. Am I being misunderstood or my assertions? These are so intricately connected within the framework we recognize as part of ourselves that defensiveness is natural.

Second, it shows that power and language funnel into each other, even when we might not intend to be speaking of power-relations explicitly. Good luck speaking of anything worth arguing about without utilizing or defending some system of power and corresponding language game.

Connected with this, it is difficult to translate skills from one game seamlessly into another. Playing baseball messes up your throwing mechanics for American football and vice versa. In fact, for many only one game is legitimately worth spending the effort to engage in. This is true of language games as well – it is difficult to see worth in another’s game without observing it closely or participating in its culture. Some people only see human worth and some only see their truth in need of defending. Striking a meaningful balance is very difficult, but one does n’t have to perform significant contortions to do so. One learns that real football has its legitimate beauty as well.

As I watched, often in horror, things being said (and let ‘s be honest, things said on from one camp generally made me sicker than the other) heightened as they always do. The urge to respond waxed and waned. My threshold of response is pretty difficult to cross (my wife wishes I would respond more often), but it happens.

The thing that kept me from replying directly is simply that by doing so, I inevitably give credit to those thoughts I am opposing. To illustrate this point, I shall recall when I first joined Facebook.

I immediately commenced finding out ‘what can I do with this?’ and discovered a religious debate group (back when group discussions were popular). Soon I was defending my views, often from those who I felt were poorly articulating them, and enjoying myself. I tried to be humble, but that has its limits. My heart was never in winning, but I liked getting my point across and figuring out a way to answer tough questions, or at least make them easier.

Then one day I stumbled onto the wrong thread. She posed an OT quandary and I tried to use my pre-adolescent Hebrew skills to set the problem in a better context (how old are the ‘children’ who mock the prophet Elisha and are mauled by God? 10 or 15? I thought it made some difference). My argument from language was questioned because she could n’t easily find a translation that backed up my interpretation. And halt. I realized that I could n’t personally defend my skills to interpret and have her trust my interpretation. Maybe someone else could. The cost of defending myself was too high. To this day I have n’t responded to her challenge. If this dispute were to be held by members of the Society for the Study of Biblical Literature, they might ‘ve sided with me (at least in my dreams they always do) – but in our context, there was no way to establish authority except by pure force of argument.

Since then I have put less and less stock in winning the debate on the street, or in the pulpit, or in the chat room than before. I do n’t like that I end up defending myself more than whatever idea I think requires defending. And then I ought to be responsible, so I ‘ll have to represent my opponent’s views. But that ‘s not the ideal starting place. This could give you the idea that I avoid conflict in all situations. Far from it – I love disagreeing with people. But I realized that there is a social cost that must be paid to speak out if I ‘m to change anyone’s mind for more than five seconds.

The title of one of my favorite books is translated as ‘the Incoherence of the Philosophers’. In it the author demonstrates, using his opponents’ methods, the limits of their understanding. He then shows that they do n’t have legitimate grounds to argue for any position counter to what God has revealed. The pre-eternity of the world? Can’t prove it – might as well trust God. The mortality of the soul? Can’t prove it either – see previous answer. You know what ‘s funny? The author was accused of adopting his opponents’ view. In doing disputation well, you might unwittingly lend credence to a voice which does n’t deserve the help. That ‘s my general feeling about this past week’s events – but we ‘ll keep moving along.

Also, someone said that often we choose to affirm something as true based on who said it, rather than judge whether these words themselves were true (and applicable). I ‘d tell you who said it, but then you might judge the verity of what he or she said by who she or he is. Kinda missing the point; for now pretend it ‘s your favorite author…then that it ‘s your least favorite author. Author and authority – it ‘s crazy stuff.  This is one of the ways we close our discourse-communities: we pick people who say what we want, then we affirm anything they say without thinking deeply about the contents of any individual utterance (or even consider whether this is a false attribution).

The last point is also a Facebook story. When I first joined, I really liked the idea of trying to articulate who I was. Some of the answers changed over time, but basically I wanted people to know that I read a lot of stuff and that I liked to talk about religion and philosophy. One of my favorite profs described his religious views as ‘accurate’ on his account. He had a Ph.D. I still do n’t. He ‘s also brilliant in a way I still do n’t feel I match, so I amended my entry to say that I was ‘pursuing accuracy’. I liked it. It sounded cool.

But I ‘ve come to realize something. While I ‘m still pursuing accuracy, it ‘s so terribly much more difficult to be faithful. After a few more years of scratching my head and typing away, maybe I could convince the people I care about that I was pretty close to ‘accurate’. But ‘faithful’? No blog post is going to show that. Ever. No public debate will tell us how to fix poverty. That does n’t mean we should give up strong opinions or serious discourse. But disputations which are self-defensive, or give voice to those who won’t do anything worthwhile with it, or which lead away from applying right action – these are n’t worth our time.

So, while we ‘re busy trying to be accurate and cordial and wise, why do n’t we consider for a moment why this fight is worth winning.  I doubt such efforts are fruitful when framed as public disputes, but some of us overvalue being right (not me of course).  Being right without doing good is absurdly meaningless.  Let ‘s try to revaluate so that what matters is defended by our actions first and then, if you must, debate away.

Chasing Location and Author-ship in Foucault’s Example

In explaining the work undertaken in The Archaeology of Knowledge (L’Archeologie du Savoir) Foucault relates what he is herein attempting to say with that which was said in his prior works (namely Madness and Civilization, Naissance de la clinique, and The Order of Things).  These are his landmarks for the discourse (largely about discourse/discursive practices) he would seek to free ‘from all anthropologism’ (Archaeology trans. A.M. Sheridan Smith p. 17). 

When I first read this (and the statement which follows), it thoroughly struck me that Foucault was learning the language with which to approach his research project.  But what he published was still, though released/published, a series of thoughts incomplete of themselves.  They were, as our words truly are, as likely to point the reader to the wrong stars as to provide a coherent means of navigating the waters with Foucault’s instruments.  To be honest, I don’t understand what was wrong with these works (I have n’t read them as yet and might not even then be in the proper position to see the weaknesses in his own publishings Foucault saw or was made aware of) and so won’t illustrate the specific items.  It is enough to hear Foucault admit:

It is mortifying that I was unable to avoid these dangers: I console myself with the thought that they were intrinsic to the enterprise itself…

~ibidem

The enterprise itself does not concern us here, but we must again note that it was not something Foucault was immediately able to recognize in his own writings – how to retool his language so that it better served his purposes and was free from the language used by ‘anthropologistic’ historical methods.  The succeeding lines shout loudest where I can but underline:

“[W]ithout the questions that I was asked, without the difficulties that arose, without the objections that were made, I may never have gained so clear a view of the enterprise to which I am now inextricably linked.  Hence the cautious, stumbling manner of this text: at every turn it stands back, measures up what is before it, gropes towards its limits, stumbles against what it does not mean, and digs pits to mark out its own path.”

~ibidem, p. 17 – emphasis mine

I could n’t identify more with such sentiments.  We expect, too often, in reading some work that the author’s ideas are fixed and stable (why else should they put their author-ity at stake) and probably assume that all decisions are consciously made.  Foucault exemplifies how this is not the case for he cautions the reader that he may in fact not be going about this in the best way.  He only knows that this is what can be said at this moment in pursuit of this goal.  At every moment he is questioning (and invites the reader to question) how the current assertion can be supported and what precisely that knowledge is serving.  Hence he says:

I have tried to define this blank space from which I speak, and which is slowly taking shape in a discourse that I still feel to be so precarious and so unsure.

~ibidem

Not only does he know that his research may be misunderstood (and used to serve ends of which he does not approve), he suspects that the approach he takes may counteract his purpose.  He may not only be misunderstood, he very well may misunderstand his own project!  For all energies sacrificed to achieve a location from which to speak, an author such as Foucault may find that such a location is entirely unsuitable.  It is unsurprising then that he is cautious, even halting, in his approach.

But if Foucault is unsure of his location, how is one to counteract his assertions?  He gives voice to his detractors in saying:

‘Aren’t you sure of what you’re saying?  Are you going to change yet again, shift your position according to the questions that are put to you, and say that the objections are not really directed at the place from which you are speaking?  Are you going to declare yet again that you have never been what you have been reproached with being?  Are you already preparing the way out that will enable you in your next book to spring up somewhere else and declare as you’re now doing: no, no, I’m not where you are lying in wait for me, but over here, laughing at you?’

~ibidem

Surely this is not a fair case if the author can perpetually evade her detractors by maintaining ‘I am not really there, but here – although, I can see why you thought so’.  But such maddening displays are true to life.  While we do speak from a location, we may not be the best author-ities to tell another where that location is.  It is, rather, injudicious of us to expect that a writer to accomplish his ends by way of the simplest definitions.  Instead, we find that we are grasping for landmarks by which to locate from whence the author is speaking – even as the author is attempting to do so! 

Misunderstandings then, as I am attempting to use the term for this moment from wherever here may be, might also describe such landmarks.  They are impressions by which we might just succeed in locating ourselves for long enough to utter some meaningful misunderstanding.  If such is the case, we would do best to tread lightly and think from as many locations as possible as we attempt to engage in that discourse we (and the author) are pressing for.

 

For those who would attempt to follow such guidelines I offer Foucault’s words:

I am no doubt not the only one who writes in order to have no face.  Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same: leave it to our bureaucrats and our police to see that our papers are in order.  At least spare us their morality when we write.

~ibidem

‘The Fantastic Imagination’ by George MacDonald

After speaking of those laws which must be most strictly adhered to in any world authorially constructed, which MacDonald asserts that contradictions to the constructed laws will cause the world to evaporate and that, as writing cannot help having a meaning, it should not violate moral consistency either by calling good a character who does bad things.  In this manner, we are made to understand

“[I]f it have proportion and harmony it has vitality, and vitality is truth. The beauty may be plainer in it than the truth, but without the truth the beauty could not be, and the fairytale would give no delight. Everyone, however, who feels the story, will read its meaning after his own nature and development: one man will read one meaning in it, another will read another.”

~The Fantastic Imagination (1893) by George MacDonald accessed here

Laws, even inverted physical or metaphysical laws, provide a space which may offer vitality.  Perhaps we should think of something being ‘true to life’ in order to grasp what MacDonald might mean by “vitality is truth” or perhaps I have n’t grasped his meaning at all.  Regardless, however, for the time I am pleased to consider such a thought (and to be guided to a better one should it present itself).

It reminds me of a time I attempted to defend the notion of truth as a person contra my fellow speaking of truth solely as correspondence.  In his definition, ‘true to life’ meant that it was true to some overarching laws we might never be able to perceive truly (though he would assert, I think, that we know a good deal already – it is the denial of this which betrays weakness of stomach for him) but I can’t let the matter go so easily.

Truth is not a thing to be had in such a manner, but that which some chase while others abandon all hope of ever turning up the trail again.  Perhaps it is not so elusive, but truth is at least that which is acceptable within our discourse (and so it lives as our stumbling words enable it to) and I think it goes beyond that as some persons are wholly incapable of being summed within our discourse well.  Chief of these is, for my faith, Christ who seemed interested in showing the untruthfulness/deceitfulness of the hearts of many (coupled with the offer to then come follow).  But the healing movement was not to agree to his underlying principles, it was to ‘go and sin no more’ – to be a follower in the truest sense, the living one.

My own considerations have, I think, bent away from where a close reading might take us (of Fantastic Imagination, not of MacDonald’s corpus I think) so I return to consider that the experience of that vitality in reading will be different for each reader.  It is not that the reader has failed to meet the author’s intention, but that the author always says more than she intended and that some readers may find items which enrich the discourse in a manner the author could not have dreamed of.

“If so, how am I to assure myself that I am not reading my own meaning into it, but yours out of it?”

‘Why should you be so assured? It may be better that you should read your meaning into it. That may be a higher operation of your intellect than the mere reading of mine out of it: your meaning may be superior to mine.'”

~Ibidem

I love that MacDonald answers question with question for if we will understand our questions we may understand what we are hoping for.  Many read with the hope of reconstructing the author’s intended reading, but no such thing can be reconstructed while maintaining the vitality which captured the author.  It is the author’s job (as the sculptor’s) to remove that which is not truly part of the story so that the story may exhibit that life of which we are speaking.

As Pierre Bayard asserts, we are going to assert our meaning into the text – but hopefully we shall realize we are doing so and in so doing test our ‘seeing as’ to note whether it will hold up to the richness of the story.  Instead of being assured that we bring nothing to the text (whether through force of will or otherwise) we ought to fully dive into this reading and see what can be made of it.  Perhaps it is less than the author envisioned, but it may be more.  Or, more likely, our seeing-as will teach us about the way in which we view the real world – the manner with which we approach vitality.  It is my hope that, through submitting such readings in dialogue, we might learn how best to reconnect with our own world rather than escape from it and be trapped within the fantastic.  Instead, the imagination is a tool to teach us indirectly about true vitality so that we may experience it in its fullness and that is most unlikely if we settle for the catching the author’s meaning where we should practice ‘living in’ so that we might learn how to better see home.

 

In sum,

“If a writer’s aim be logical conviction, he must spare no logical pains, not merely to be understood, but to escape being misunderstood; where his object is to move by suggestion, to cause to imagine, then let him assail the soul of his reader as the wind assails an æolian harp. If there be music in my reader, I would gladly wake it.”

~Ibidem

I believe logical conviction to be far less meaningful than the attempts to awaken or stir the soul of the reader.  In such case misunderstanding is not the object of fear – it is to be immovable and incapable of being stirred from slumber.  Which is the more frightening?  Better by far to misunderstand and be misunderstood but strain to catch the music and join in.

Sharing the ‘Inner Book’: Meditations on ‘How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read’

If you do n’t talk about the books you read, they may, at best, only benefit you.  A book may serve as the subject of your inner dialogue until you forget its contents, but that inevitable outcome always approaches far too quickly.  In such case, our inner book is unlikely to reveal to us our own face while such mirroring may well occur in dialogue.  Therefore, when we not only think about books but assert and deny, we use books not as the means of reaffirming ourselves but as reference points for discourse.  After all, augmenting discourse is the raison d’etre for many a book’s creation and all books are a ‘speaking from’ whose voice is best found not in a sole utterance but as a mark within the discussion.

The Ledge of Knowing: Foucault’s Indefinable Definition-by-way-of-Discourse

At last I ‘ve crested the next-to-final hillock in the Archaeology of Knowledge by Foucault.  And, finally I ‘m met with a definition of knowledge – so long as I ‘m willing to rearrange the idea of ‘definite’ that is.  Consequently, should I ever step over the ledge that is publishing, I’ll either begin my pagination at p. 182 or put off defining the most important elements of my discourse until the penultimate chapter.  But would n’t it be more properly in line with ‘holism without the whole’ to leave the definition nothing but a sketch, a series of examples?  Oh wait, that ‘s kind of what Foucault did.

This group of elements, formed in a regular manner by a discursive practice, and which are indispensable to the constitution of a science, although they are not necessarily destined to give rise to one, can be called knowledge.

~Archaeology (1972), Pantheon Books, New York (translated by A.M. Sheridan Smith) p. 182

Finally, whew – we ‘re done.  There ‘s nothing more to see here; we can all go home now and ponder how best to apply Foucault’s historical apparatus(es).  Or wait, maybe he ‘s not done.

Knowledge is that of which one can speak in a discursive practice, and which is specified by that fact:

~Ibidem

And now we know where he ‘s going with this; knowledge is the product of discursive practices – many of which Foucault is sure to enumerate.  Oh, and ‘knowledge’ is n’t so much a product of discourse, but the limits made possible by discourse – the possible selections to be made within the pronounced and silent aspects of discourse.

…the domain constituted by the different objects that will or will not acquire a scientific status (the knowledge of psychiatry in the nineteenth century is not the sum of what was thought to be true, but the whole set of practices, singularities, and deviations of which one could speak in psychiatric discourse);

~Ibidem

Okay, that ‘s a helpful illustration.  To possess knowledge in a given field of study is to know the language of study in which that field operates such that you recognize (as a grammarian) abusive or acceptable forms or facts within the realm of that knowledge.  And continue the expositio:

…knowledge is also the space in which one the subject may take up a position and speak of the objects with which he deals in his discourse (in this sense, the knowledge of clinical medicine is the whole group of functions of observation, interrogation, decipherment, recording, and decision that may be exercised by the subject of medical discourse); knowledge is also the field of coordination and subordination of statements in which concepts appear, and are defined, applied and transformed (at this level, the knowledge of Natural History, in the eighteenth century, is not the sum of what was said, but the whole set of modes and sites in accordance with which one can integrate each new statement with the already said);

~Ibidem, pp. 182-183

So knowledge is not merely passively seeing errors and regularities in discourse, but speaking in the locus of that discourse.  Those privileged enough to be recognized by society as having authority to speak in medical discourse then execute its judgments according not only to the facts but to the space that knowledge inhabits.  I.e. they exercise knowledge within that locus by way of interacting according to the discursive limits which constitute that knowledge.

Knowledge as the field of coordination/subordination would mean that knowledge is n’t simply the available possibilities within discourse, but knowledge is also that thing which limits/enables/categorizes such possibilities.  I.e., instead of describing points of discourse A or -A, knowledge specifically decides how what is said of A/-A is to be not only viewed but applied within the system of knowledge.

lastly, knowledge is defined by the possibilities of use and appropriation offered by discourse (thus, the knowledge of political economy, in the Classical period, is not the thesis of the different theses sustained, but the totality of its points of articulation on other discourses or on other practices that are not discursive).  There are bodies of knowledge that are independent of the sciences (which are neither their historical prototypes, nor their practical by-products), but there is no knowledge without a particular discursive practice; and any discursive practice may be defined by the knowledge that it forms.

~Ibidem, p. 183

We ‘ve already touched on how knowledge consists of the possible points of discourse, but also as the aspects of discursive practice which limits their possibility and application; the domain of possibility, the possibilities, and that which allows them to take part in knowledge.

I do n’t pretend to have understood this perfectly (and given the title of this blog, I should hope that such expectations would be diminished), but while I have some clue, having waded through the prior pages so that I can appreciate the embeddedness (to use a term I better understand when applied to Heidegger’s Ontology – Hermeneutics of Facticity) or perhaps better, what it means for Foucault to speak of something ‘discursive’.

Basically (so that my misunderstandings may remain small or forgivable), Foucault wishes to consider history without letting the historical project serve or lend itself to the ‘sovereignty of consciousness’.  Should we be able to extricate one history (either as the sum to which events and technologies at last lead or as the constant, unchangeable flow which those events serve), it will serve this telos.  Yes, writing histories is both political product and that which alters the political discourse by participating within it.  But if we can look at history as histories, as pieces of events as they relate to the other events and not to some Geist or theme, our results may perhaps avoid serving those ends.

So Foucault looks to encounter history as discourse through discourse, by not only entering the conversation to chronicle what was said, but as those mechanisms which limited the conversation, as those items which deviated from the conversation, and as those mechanisms which led to the conversation being held according to such determinations.  In doing so, the product should fail to serve the ends of the ‘sovereignty of consciousness’ because we cannot speak of one ‘product’ but rather the production, production mechanisms, and those items which could not have been produced.  Instead of ‘history’ we have ‘histories of’: histories not of thought but of that which led to thought and those thoughts excluded and the rationality that led to their exclusion.

It is in this sense that knowledge is neither to be spoken of as the object which history seeks to uncover, nor the sum of facts.  Instead, knowledge is the ways we speak about objects and the ways we are n’t allowed to speak.  Knowledge is that which tells us what is understanding and what is misunderstanding, the positions taken, the fields constituting those possibilities, and the mechanisms which change.

 

But the simplest thought to be extricated is simply that knowledge cannot be removed from discourse – for it both serves discourse and is its result (whose value is derived solely from the discourse which it adds or detracts from).  This ghastly ledge descries that horrifying limit which separates knowing from unknowing, but it also is that which exaggerates the dangerous verticality of the separation; the Separationist movement which excludes, but that which will lead one to at last construct a step-ladder with which one may explore the limit that gives knowledge its edge.

If we are to take Foucault seriously, to misunderstand him in the small sense by way of the best available misunderstandings, we will not be so caught in the eschatological vision that we forget that this reaching into the abyss not only will lead to the extension of knowledge in overcoming its limits but also the unseen return which shall yet constrain it in the unseen.  But the purpose here is not to discredit all attempts at understanding – rather it is to cause us to consider what understanding truly is so that we might avoid serving misunderstanding in the pursuit of attaining that knowledge.  Surely to reveal is also to re-veil, but that does not negate the value of seeking revelation.

 

Reinforced Prohibitions: Foucault and Pre-tensions in Speaking

Foucault opens his 1970 lecture at the Collège de France, entitled L’ordre du discours, translated by Rupert Swyer as The Discourse on Language, by noting his own desire to participate in a discourse without beginnings, for such would surely be the safer prospect.

A good many people, I imagine, harbour a similar desire to be freed from the obligation to begin, a similar desire to find themselves, right from the outside, on the other side of discourse, without having to stand outside it, pondering its particular, fearsome, and even devilish features…

Inclination speaks out: ‘I don’t want to have to enter this risky world of discourse; I want nothing to do with it insofar as it is decisive and final; I would like to feel it all around me, calm and transparent, profound, infinitely open, with others responding to my expectations, and truth emerging, one by one.’

~Discourse, pp. 215-216 (published as an Appendix to The Archaeology of Knowledge (1972) by Pantheon Books, New York)

Similarly any time I begin to deliver a speech or lecture, I find it most difficult to make a beginning – to step into discourse for fear of speaking out unwittingly.  I should like far better to immediately have my terms understood with the proximal definitions I have accepted, at least within the space of my own participation in that discourse.  But such is not the case; our entrance into discourse is rightly the cause of considerable anxiety, and Foucault hones in on those items in society, operable by language, which are experienced as ‘rules of exclusion’.  The first of these is encased simply in the right afforded by or excluded from society to speak of a particular subject:

[T]hese prohibitions interrelate, reinforce and complement each other, forming a complex web, continually subject to modification.  I will note simply that the areas where this web is most tightly woven today, where the danger spots are most numerous, are those dealing with politics and sexuality.  It is as though discussion, far from being a transparent, neutral element, allowing us to disarm sexuality and to pacify politics, were one of those privileged areas in which they exercised some of their more awesome powers.

~ibidem, p. 216

Seriously.  I have been taught implicitly by society not to allow my mis-takes to cross either of these arenas.  I far prefer to note another’s gaffe, rather than to venture a full-blooded response.  Better to make our remarks quickly of the slip-tongued and move along quickly.  My treatment, therefore, shall be short.

Recall his embodiment of inclination through whom Foucault describes the desire to speak with no voice; to communicate purely on a plain of ideas where such ideas are not perceived to be final.  It has particularly occurred to me what place death is afforded in the nature of discourse.  To speak or to publish is to release hold of; as our thoughts, fed by and bred in discourse, enter the arena they are given a chance to speak or silenced on the basis of whether they are pronounced ‘within the true’ (p. 224).  So, if one is to communicate, one must step into the realm of discourse, in which being within the true is something of a moving series of dispersions; shifting in the discursive formations continues even as the systems of exclusion are modified.

Taking the tightly woven points of contact with sexuality and politics, my instinct is to refuse to treat of either subject.  If you doubt the verity of what Foucault is saying on other points, that is well enough but even a mild transgression against another’s political or sexual framework is enough to incur the wrath of exclusion; either active in the form of entering a closed discourse (where neither speaker can establish any means by which to communicate their stances with the other) or in the more active exclusion of being summarily ignored.  I so rarely treat of either subject because, like Foucault’s ‘inclination’ I would wish to speak without closing myself into one of these closed discursive loops or incurring the wrath of one in such loops whose language does not extend away from the center of such discourses.

In this address, late in 1970, he surmised that we “are a very long way from having constituted a unitary, regular discourse concerning sexuality; it may be that we never will, and that we are not even travelling in that direction. (pp. 233-234)”  Though a more generic project, the same could be said of political discourse; and therefore I find myself resisting all urges to enter such conversations because the outcomes are largely decided before a beginning can be made.  Instead I limit myself to observing those particular problems which catch my attention and wish that I had to make no beginning at all.

 

While I desire that we should be able to exercise discourse freely, the very nature of speaking out requires that we speak by means of form; and the forms provided are discursive, and therefore limiting.  I do not possess the energy to engage in the necessary discourse about our discourse because in uttering such a desire, my energies are soon spent in defining everything I am not trying to say.  In such cases, it is far more prudent to choose to be misunderstood so that another is unsure of precisely from which discursive practice my thoughts originate.  When this is achieved, the result is to nudge the respondent unwittingly toward the discourse about discourse; that which might yet prove productive if only we might step a little away from our current definitions.  Misunderstanding therefore may serve as a tool in discourse, not to escape it, but to step to the periphery while evading the defense mechanisms inherent therein and thus lean towards that conversation really worth being had, particularly about subjects so central to our cultures as sexuality and politics.