What is all this writing for? I don't mean only, or principally, the writing found here. I mean the activity around which I structure my life, the cyborg attachment to a keyboard on which I can now type while looking around at the world, at passing dogs and children, even if I am more likely looking at some other text, a text I did not myself write, on another part of the screen. I mean this thing I do that was once considered a specialized activity like musicianship -- as when villages had scribes who could draft letters for you, you who could see nothing but meaningless ink marks on parchment -- but is now just part of life. Everyone does it, or at least many, many people do, and yet I am one of the few from among those many who imagines it is the thing that I do. I didn't choose it, and I don't really know what it is.
I imagine, when I am happy, that I am slowly but surely coming up with a body of work that will, in some format or other, survive me. But I am seldom happy, or at least happy enough to really believe that I am doing anything other than stabbing blindly. For one thing, it is all à côté de la plaque. I am supposed to be producing scholarship, philosophy scholarship to be precise, yet I keep feeling myself drawn back to other forms, setting up as my models people who were not arguers at all, but stylists, people who had no theories, but only visions. For another thing, I sincerely believe that we are entering a period of post-literacy, and the real creative work that is going on right now, the real sculpting of visions into works that can be left to posterity, is increasingly happening elsewhere than in strings of words. Yet here I am, once again, stringing together words...
I still earnestly hope to contribute something to philosophy. It is already certain that if this is going to happen at all, the significance will be an orthogonal significance; it will come from the side, and clarify in virtue of its impurity. If it happens at all. But this earnest desire coexists, problematically, with two other deep motivations. One is to leave concepts and arguments and footnotes behind, which on a certain line of thinking is all artifice; to go instead with Seamus Heaney, who understood: "Now the good life could be to cross a field / And art a paradigm of earth new from the lathe / Of ploughs." Another motivation, whose relation to this one just mentioned is still unclear to me, is to blow up the arguments and the footnotes from the inside, by means of satire.
Juvenal said that "it is difficult not to write satire," but I think he meant something different than what I am now trying to get at. here. The Roman author felt that the world itself was ridiculous, and did not merit earnesty. I would like to address my subjects with seriousness, but they just keep addressing themselves to my satirical sense. It is not my fault. So, Juvenal. My satire, though, is my fault. It grows up inside of me, like cataracts from excessive reading. It results from a certain disposition or attitude toward the skills I've set out to master.
But what is satire? In a certain sense, it is just a display of mastery. I think here of a Russian film I saw years ago, whose title and details I forget, which featured a Soviet emigré working as a violinist in a restaurant in Paris. He is a master, and he is bored and disappointed with life. He amuses himself by putting the bow between his legs and playing the violin upside down. This is satire: showing that you can do, à rebours, what you're supposed to be doing right-side up; you can do your school-boy routine with your hands tied behind your back. You can do it with your groin. And as with playing, so with writing. Satire is a demonstration that you are so good at what you are supposed to be doing that you can do it in a way you're not supposed to.
But why do this? Wouldn't it be better to cross a field, to take to the plough? I have perhaps set off an a bad foot with the example of the depressed Russian violinist, for there are arguments for the edifying quality of such exercises. If you succeed in producing a fake work, after all (say, a fake scholarly article with fake footnotes to nonexistent books), then you have not just shown off mastery, you have also helped yourself to attain a sort of maker's knowledge. You haven't just provided a study of some narrow sliver of the world; you've created a whole parallel world, of which you now have, so to speak, omniscient para-knowledge.
Here of course we are returned to the basic distinction Aristotle makes between history and poetics: the historian (and by extension what we would call the 'scholar') tells you about the actual, whereas the poet's domain of concern ranges over all possibles. The great satirist (and I have Laurence Sterne in mind, as usual), brings into being a possible world that, if it were to exist, would be very close to our own, but he gets to create it from scratch, as he pleases, according to phancy rather than to the demands of either the empirical world (what happens) or of reason (what governs our take on what happens). This is why philosophers read Locke but not Sterne, and Aristotle but not Herodotus (whom the Philosopher faulted for not yet liberating history from poetry). And this is why anyone who wishes to be a historian-poet, or a scholar-satirist, faces a fundamental dilemma.
But there may be better reason than ever to fight to tame this two-horned bull, to dominate it and ride it, and this reason may be connected to the post-literacy above mentioned. It is growing increasingly hard to justify the current system of resarch. In a certain sense, 19th-century philologists (for example) created works of scholarship to which no single scholar's work today could hold a candle. But there is now a transhuman entity, the Internet, that has taken the great bulk of what was written in the 19th century, digitized it, and brought into being a practically infinite super-work that makes the production of further detailed and exhaustive work mostly otiose. No one is doing work like they used to do, yet the available body of knowledge is growing like never before. You no longer need me, or any one else, to tell you the definitive story, within the space of a book, of whaling or metallurgy or the ontological proof for the existence of God. Or, rather, you no longer need me to just tell you the story. You need me to do something to it, to set it off somehow, perhaps in a nearby and carefully distorted world. Knowledge is abundant; it is being shifted to the close-out bins. What is in short supply, and undervalued, is creative appropriation of knowledge, which, again, might someday come to be seen as the true display of knowledge acquisition, of mastery.
It is hard not to notice that even as student papers get worse and worse, as the charade of thesis statements and carefully crafted argumentative sentences and so on becomes ever harder for either side to ignore, there is a small subset of the rising generation that seems, as if spontaneously, to be preserving the age-old concerns of the humanities: the art-school kids. I well understand how easy it is to dismiss them as frivolous, as mere hangers-on of a particular 'scene'. But let us be serious: where are you more likely to find an undergraduate who can tell you the general themes and outlines of, say, Hamlet? In the English department or in the fine arts program? The kids in the latter will be looking, perhaps, to do something with Hamlet, rather than (just) to understand it. They are probably interested in spoofing it, rather than revering it. But they are still our best hope. My money is on them.
Post-literacy will not mean the end of knowledge, but only the end of the system, in place for the past 600 years or so, of knowledge production and dissemination. In its place, if we are fortunate, there will be new forms of learning, perhaps some of which will return to older, pre-Gutenbergian praxis. After all, the book not only helped knowledge to expand, it also served as a crutch, and weakened our discipline for memorization and other forms of dematerialized mastery. Perhaps, now free of our bulky prostheses, we will return to forgotten exercises of the ars memoriae.
Ideally, also, mastery will be coupled with creative appropriation, that is to say with what is too easily set off to the side as satire. This coupling would also be the solution to a dilemma, one that haunts a particular species of restless soul, for which the straightfaced telling of what is the case could never be enough, and least of all now, when machines can do the telling for us.