3.05.2011

Where to begin?

It's very hard to begin with a frame — it bleeds, multiplies, betrays.

It's impossible to begin at the beginning. Because, as Foucault says, when you get to the origin you find the dissension of other things. The beginning is always in progress; it's always already begun.

So at what point do I begin? How much do I need to explain? How far back do I need to go? Which terms do I need to define? And which terms in that definition do I need to define?

Does "back" even mean anything? Is it actually a matter of going back? I'm not sure. I think, perhaps, it's matter of knowing how to go forward.

It's matter of circumstance, then — of audience. To whom am I speaking and why. And yet, when writing, one's audience is never present. And writing in a venue such as this, with an audience I do not know and cannot predict, how do I know where to begin?

This is of course an issue of all writing. Writing delimits its audience, necessarily. But it doesn't choose its audience. To wit, I wrote something on this blog a few weeks ago about speaking to the smartest. It was a bit crass but it was written for my ideal audience — my right as it's my blog: an audience that enjoys a little play in their prose.

My friend who runs Thought Catalog republished the same piece there. And while many seemed to enjoy it, the article truly pissed some people off. Go and read the comments. (Such bile! But that's a topic for another day.) Once the article changed venues, it changed audiences. And suddenly terms and tone that I took for granted — and assumed my audience assumed — seemed terribly out of place. What do I mean by dumb? By intelligent? By "speaking over their heads?" By "shut the fuck up"?

(I have to say: people might not like my argument anyway but that's not what stirred them up — it was the tone.)

So where does one begin? Deleuze always begins mid-discussion. He never steps back from his writing, never tries to give an overview. His books begin almost mid-sentence — as a reader, you get swept up in the flow or drown.

Me, I've never been that brave. Perhaps it's all the years I spent teaching but I try to frame my discussion from the get go, to step back a bit and try to present the whole of my argument — as if there were such a thing.

But there is such a thing, sort of. One can try to frame a discussion, claim why it's worthwhile, why it matters, why one is even speaking at all.

And yet there is a limit to such a frame precisely because there is no hard and fast limit. I suddenly understand Derrida's "Parergon" (in "The Truth in Painting") in a profound, practical sense. One's frame always gives way, bleeds, frames a different discussion, finds a different audience, yields a different effect.

Sometimes, I have to say, writing seems impossible.

11 comments:

what the Tee Vee taught said...

Bro, I read those comments (puke), and I thought the nasty, angry comments had many roots here:

They pictured you as their math teacher or the professor in some business something-or-other class. Basically, classes with "ANSWERS". Fill in the blank: and there is only one correct "fill".

I suspect they thought you were feeding answers to the smart kids, and then moving on down the road, leaving the less adept behind.

li'l girl blue said...

Hahaaaaa! Sometimes I can’t work out whether I am relieved or disappointed that these internet discussions don’t take place in an environment well-stocked with such breakables as pint glasses and pool cues.

In this as in so many “arguments” I love the fact that the people who seem to have reacted with exquisite indignation are taking instantaneous offense at something that doesn’t actually exist: their imagined version of what they suspect your teaching is like on the basis of an article that you wrote about it. This confabulation that has them so rabidly outraged is an invented thing that bears very little resemblance to reality...or at least reality as I conceive it to be having listened to some of the lectures online, which actually don’t come across as excessively lofty or obscure.

Not that my ‘reality’ is necessarily truer than theirs in any way. I just think it is because it’s mine.

Daniel Coffeen said...

The fact is I don't blame people for being a bit aggressive. The post, out of context, was aggressive. What perturbs me is the casual ad hominem hatred with a whiff of violence about it. Is this generational? Web specific? I don't know. Hmn.

what the Tee Vee taught said...

This got me thinking about how we respond to "encounters".

I'd like to use encounter to mean: an unexpected experience that is either difficult or strange. (that it is "unexpected" is essential).

Do we invite the encounter? Listen to it? Welcome it in? Perhaps... this would be a bold course. The person who invites the Difficult or Strange is at least willing to entertain them. Some of us seek the Strange or Difficult, we're not having an "encounter" at all.

But, as your recent words elicited, it's common to say NO to the Strange. Chide it. Demand that it go away. And this person, I suppose, does not frame the unexpected Strange as a potential positive. Rather, it is something to be beaten away. The ego(?) says: "this isn't us, so it isn't good". And, as some would have it: if it isn't "good" it must be destroyed.


Sure, the internet enables the ugly:

a) Imagine saying something, or doing something. And imagine the response to what you said or did is disgust or horror. This would, I suppose, beg at least a moment of introspection, a moment of consideration. But the internet hides the receiver. Limits affective resonance. Decreases the potential for shame.

b) You have the option of not being part of the result. Like the bomber pilot (an uneven comparison, surely), the internet commenter need not visit the space that their actions changed. Both can do the same thing: Press the button, and move along.

Daniel Coffeen said...

I'm with you. But I still wonder: from whence such hateful instinct? Or is it not really hateful but the mode of expression of the day?

I was shocked when I first saw "Super Bad" — a very sweet movie in the end — and the way they speak to each other: such violence and cruelty. But then I thought: well, they're just copping the culture of rap which speaks like this.

Is that right? Is what I'm thinking of as hate just a mode of expression?

Charles F. Oxtrot said...

Picking a nit from the start: "from whence" is redundant; "whence" includes time and place.

Otherwise, the essay was great, the comments ignorant and laughably indicative of the very point the essay makes.

You might appreciate the post "Yoonie Farms" at my blog. When I proposed an ideal school of small group size on a Socratic instructional style, I was thinking about grouping students and leader/nudger (teacher) according to temperament, which would include accommodating the perspective you shared in that linked essay. I share that perspective and I would prefer teaching students (actually, guiding/nudging students) who share the perspective. My experience is the best learning happens in such settings.

Daniel Coffeen said...

@ Charles: Thanks for the nit, truly: always welcome. I relish such things.

And: I loved your Yoonie Farms post (I like your blog in general). That post is structured like a Socratic dialogue, all the moves — and feelings — included.

I like the figure of nudging — it's a great word, too. But I do think teaching often entails being more aggressive. Perhaps nudging can be aggressive. I'm not sure. I taught for 15 years and I have no idea — well, I have some idea, even plenty of ideas — what makes "effective" or "good" teaching.

It's actually one thing I really miss about teaching — that relentless interrogation into one's own practice, that constant doubt and questioning that drove me.

jemtallon said...

Not long ago I was on a first date. Somewhere between discussions of the mundane details of our lives - looking for mutual interests - I mentioned I went to a gym each weekday. I was utterly surprised by her recoil. After some nudging she informed me people who exercise regularly are pretentious. She was young; she likely didn't understand the meaning of the term and the irony she'd just performed. But for a moment I considered what background she could have - how she framed her world in such a way! - that physical activity itself had become something despicable. I should have thanked her for the opportunity to explore this strange argument and for the story I'd remember long after I'd forgotten her name. If there is a next time, I intend to be more generous.

what the Tee Vee taught said...

@ Coffeen:

Yes, that sounds right. Through the ear of the old vocabulary, we're much nastier.

At my school, the "nice girls" say fuck repeatedly, casually, without a care. Sadly, the bad words have lost their bite... hopefully there are some new ones gaining traction, I don't know. So yeah, "you're a piece of shit, fuck you", is no longer reserved for special occasions.

But, the American child/adult is, to state the obvious, hyper competitive. Despite the common lie, competition is not "healthy". Useful to other ends? Sure. But health? I think not.

What is more objectionable than competition? Bluh! Go through life craving to be the best: richest, smartest, prettiest, coolest, biggest cock, biggest tits, biggest house... competition makes me want to puke. And yet, everywhere you go, competition is sold as a virtue, a "good"... mindlessly championed by people who think they're "good".

Crank up the competition, compare everything on a vertical scale, normalize the bad words... gets ugly in a hurry.

Daniel Coffeen said...

@ Jemtallon: Dating is hilarious like that — it's an endless interrogation of self and other, a relentless framing and reframing. It demands generosity — which is exhausting.

jemtallon said...

@ Coffeen: As is publishing a thought on the Internet. But, oh, the payoff those rare times you connect with someone... delicious