4.18.2011

The Will to Multiplicity



This or that book, they like to say, is the definitive tome on James Joyce, on the French Revolution, on Monet. But why be definitive? What will propels such a desire?

It seems such a peculiarly imperial drive — to claim the territory, plant the flag, make the laws: this is James Joyce, dammit! This will imagines knowledge as a domain to be colonized with texts that are fixed entities, quantities to be exhausted and hence known — as if knowledge had an end.

But what of the will to multiplicity? What of the will that says, "This is my take on Joyce. What's yours? The more the merrier!"

The will to multiplicity doesn't mean writing with any less rigor (although rigor of research wields its own very special kind of tyranny). Nor does it necessitate hedging its bet (although there's nothing wrong with that — hedging is a complex art and science unto itself). One who writes with such a will is no less passionate, no less engaged with the material than the one who seeks to be definitive. I might even say that the will to multiplicity enjoys a certain intimacy with the material, seeking to see it celebrated, proliferated, extended into new territories.

Just because I recognize that there are other readings doesn't mean I don't stand by mine. Why can't I be passionate, emphatic, about what I have to say while simultaneously relishing the fact that there are other passionate, emphatic readings?

A text — whether it's a book, an oeuvre, a life, an event — is infinite. There are as many ways into a text as there are readers and more. I want to say that a text is all of its possible readings, including those yet to come, including those we cannot yet imagine. The more readings — and the stranger the readings — the more alive that text becomes.

The will to multiplicity enjoys the lack of finality, the impossibility of reaching the end. It knows no reading can claim the land because there is no land per se: the whole thing is in motion, a river, an ocean, a sky. It does not seek to exhaust a text because there is no exhaustion — there is nothing but the act of reading, of reading again, and again, and again.

The will to multiplicity is premised on love — a love of the text, a love for and of and with difference. It is a love of life in all its multihued splendor.

4 comments:

Daniel Schealler said...

Yeah, that's all well and good Coffeen.

But tell me.

How could I feel all superior and look down my nose at people if I can't plant a flag on a mountain and defend from the position of high ground?

If I allow that kind of multiplicity to catch on, how will I be able to use my intellect as a weapon of violence against the egos of other people?

And where will that leave me when I'm at home on a Tuesday night with nothing else to do on the internet, and I've already spent myself on porn?

Linz said...

It had never occurred to me that the will to multiplicity could be premised on love - I like that.

I'd always thought of it as premised on confidence. There's a fundamental anxiety in reading, and getting past it and into a text demands, well, a kind of chutzpah. The will to the definitive, with its appeal to outside authority and need for universal acknowledgment, seems meek in comparison.

drip said...

Yes, the whole thing is in motion, a river, an ocean, a sky. And I am not a cork bobbing or a leaf drifting. And what I love in Faulkner today is not what I loved before. The text is the same, but I am not. How could I love at 50 what I hated at 20? Did the whale become white? Was Don Quixote sane? I want to love more and better and in different ways. I don't know about more and better, but different, I can do.

Daniel Coffeen said...

@ Daniel: Yes, you understand — it is an odd will, and not a pretty one.

@ Linz: It's always about the love, baby.

@ drip: Love that last line: "I don't know about more and better, but different, I can do." Perfect.