Saturday, October 27, 2007

on the redefinition of terms

so somewhat in response to dan's most recent post on wraetlic, and somewhat in response to eileen joy's lucent comments on my last posting, i should say a few things about my views on the way that certain fraught words (i'm thinking religious, i.e. god, faith, sacred, etc. but also any number of other words that are either over-popular or un-popular in academia) should function.

what i want to do is something like a re-thinking of derrida's idea of words "sous rature." with this term, derrida (after heidegger) allows for the fact that one cannot avoid talking about certain concepts which one wishes radically question using the terms that make a number of assumptions about those very concepts. thus: the strike-through. the word-made-ironic in a terribly controlled way. when i think of this term, i always think of language as a vessel (beware, very extended metaphor ahead!), and the act of putting something under erasure to empty the vessel while continuing to use it. but i think that this vessel metaphor allows us to focus in some interesting ways on the history associated with certain terms in a more hopeful way. it's not necessarily that i want to question the existence of that which the term names, but instead that i want to change what and how the vessel holds. in many cases, i want the vessel to crack (or for us to recognize that the vessel is already cracked), so that we are not placing the word under erasure but instead recognizing that it can fundamentally no longer hold what it once did. sometimes this means that we continue pouring into the vessel and it continues leaking. at any one moment it looks like it's doing what it once did (and this "once" is, obviously, in some ways an idealized case, but let's leave that for later), the liquid stays at the same level, but with attention over time, we realize that it is only our continual willingness to keep topping it off that keeps the vessel full. though there are lots of implications to this metaphor, i'm particularly interested in what happens if we (locally) allow the vessel to drain and begin using it differently even as others may attempt to keep it full (or to throw it out because it's flawed.) take, for example, a term like "faith." there are undeniable religious resonances in this word, even when it's used without direct reference to religion. many people continue to "keep the faith" despite increasing evidence that faith is less responsible (by which i mean unable to speak for itself) in light of philosophical, political, social, and religious developments over the last century-and-a-half or so. in "secular" academia, however, faith can easily be something of a dirty word. some cadres of critics want to attempt to throw it and its ilk out altogether. even to be derridean and put it "under erasure" is a certain kind of "throwing out," despite its (relatively) pragmatic value for discussion. so, i'd like to try to put faith in a space wherein i can play with the borders between its existence and nonexistence, coming from the negative side. i'd like to look at the shape of faith, the way it functions, its history, its possible future - everything encoded in the material of the word, and see if i can make it hold something flawed - i.e. by definition not faith. speaking specifically of religious terms, i think that secular criticism can come dangerously close to losing the possibilities for thinking that surround these words and concepts - jettisoning them as "not part of the critical project." certain schools of contemporary christianity (or even kierkegaardian) embrace the idea of "faith without faith" or "hope without hope" - but i find that they pull a crazy hat trick at the very bottom of all of it, wherein, like playing the daisy-game of "she-loves-me she-loves-me-not" after counting the petals, one always ends on the positive side. i want to do the same, from the negative.

but then, and this is where i think this addresses eileen, i think that i want to be able to do this in other situations, too. for example, there's the modernist and new-critical attempt for ahistoricity - the stuff is Art, especially in fragmented montage form, so it somehow transcends time. this is, of course, terribly dangerous and irresponsible. but i also think that the need to work at anchoring things historically, to continually look towards death, can become almost like a certain kind of faith. so, what i argue in the last post, is in some ways a call for certain modes of "time without time" or "history without history." i think that allowing for this mental-metaphorical space in which two mutually exclusive things can exist in the same place at the same time is hugely important for creative thought, but forcing it to be unquestioningly temporal or eschatological isn't a limitation that seems productive to impose there.

so i think that we should be able to remember, always, that history will end, and even that our lives will end, that other lives have ended. but we should also sometimes, temporarily, be able to simultaneously believe that time has stopped, or reversed, or become irrelevant, that history is entirely paratactic, that we will never die and that others have not died. this is, for me, a terrifically profound (and i think not irresponsible) mode of hoping.

i want to add as well (and here's where my response to dan comes in) that this all sounds terribly individual, but i don't think that's a limitation i want here either. on the contrary, it seems like this sort of "suspension of disbelief" allows for the formation of certain kinds of communities of thought that are temporarily less bogged down by the trappings of everyday or even (often) critical language. this is a poetic relationship, not even (for example) in dan's readings or robin's readings but in the silent spaces between, in which those poems were for a few moments less mutually exclusive, and when the audience and the poets were also less mutually exclusive.


dan remein said...

so i think that we should be able to remember, always, that history will end, and even that our lives will end, that other lives have ended. but we should also sometimes, temporarily, be able to simultaneously believe that time has stopped, or reversed, or become irrelevant, that history is entirely paratactic, that we will never die and that others have not died. this is, for me, a terrifically profound (and i think not irresponsible) mode of hoping.

Sarah, this, to me, is an extraordinary and provocative passage. Despite your desire to complicate and negative the Derridean hopewithouthope, you seem to posit one yourself. Certain Christian Kierkegaardian's, the one's who, in the end, are not interested in positing the existence of an ontological god, while I am not convinced they all think this radicalization through to the end of their thoughts--they in theory should end with a negativity, if there is no thing which is god that has being or any sort of strong power/force. The point of these is the impossibility of thinking that, and finding hope tenable. And, not just because it is "productive" for creative thought, etc. Except, they would, I think, continue to insist on believing always that we will die. To forget this may be psychologically needed, but this is the very impossibility of a hope without hope that clears ground for a more radical hope. At some point, and this is perhaps the edge I am walking upon these days in my thoughts on Wraetlic: one must consider if she/he really believes in the possibility of the future. One question is about if one can keep faith around not just in order to keep it in play--in jest, but if one can take hope seriously.

Eileen Joy said...

Sarah: I have responded to your and Dan's very provocative recent posts over at In The Middle. Cheers, Eileen

meagan said...

sarah-i have been following (from a distance) the conversation you and d and the itm folks have been having. in response to your latest response to eileen's response to both of you (confusing) i wanted to talk to you a little about the work i do with groups/communities, trying to encourage both heterodoxy and love. I totally see what you are saying about not trusting the ideas or the people, and find that a lot in church work. i too hated group work as a child...but in the context of my church i am constantly surprised to find myself loving it. i am planning a sunday service for nov.18 in which, instead of a sermon, a small group of people will present thier different ideas and interpretations of the text we have chosen...i have been working with this group for a few weeks now, and love/trust are soooo important. it is incredible the things they come up with and the space they are creating even within this defined/religious/sometimes orthodox/dogmatic community.

anyhow, whatever that's worth. i love what you're saying, and a lot of the stuff you all are working on is stuff i am working on as "my world." when talking about communities/groups and heterodoxy, i think it might be interesting to see what our disciplines (?)/spheres can say to one another. (especially as we encounter "religious" words like faith, god, hope, etc...)

we'll have to talk about this when i'm in town.

dan remein said...

will another sarah ever write another post for danaidean?