Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Form of the Essay

Brown Hare

It is always about. – in the sense that it describes its object by a flight around it, 'describing' as when we say 'her arm described an arc in the air', except that the space described by the movement of an essay about it is not empty but replete – too replete to answer otherwise to anything but the Schumpeterian creative destruction which is the typical route of disciplinary knowledge. The alternative to this analytic is the praxis of the essay, a kindlier motion, where 'kind' evokes the relation between as well as within species and phyla, and 'essay' calls up 'assay' and 'essayer', to try, to assess or ponder, and in a false etymology which also has its weight, to speak out of (ex) the processes of observation and reflection.

What is at stake in the essay is neither objective nor subjective knowledge of an object but relation, connection, the unexpected congruence of this with that. It is not concerned with truth, or with ethical or political value, in its form, though it will reflect on truth and value. Its commerce is with the [dis]integrating of the subject-object relation, the [dis]placement not only of what is known but of what can be known, such that the structuring governance of subjective (ethical) and social (political) value typical of the humanities is decentred in favour of a sympathy with the thing discussed. There is always disavowal involved in the essayist's description because there is always love, even for the most heinous entity.

Never take the essay too seriously. It is playful. In its play it is in hock to consumerism, which demands a constant playfulness on the part of consumers, a playful inventiveness which can be crowd-sourced to produce the next fad on which the perpetual renewal of consumption depends. So the essayist reveals in the personal quality of their endeavour (for example the constructive force of interpretation) that they are indeed social and historical beings, who neither pretend nor aspire to any divine or mechanical universality of truth, value or credo. At the same time the dialectic of play ensures that their inventions threaten the coherence of the world-order, especially as it is expressed in the supposedly cumulative wisdom of humankind. Play with the matter in hand in the essay is bricolage, the connection – to reiterate that compulsory component – of parts that have been disciplined into taxonomic autonomy. In the essay, the tyranny of the expert is no longer respected: expertise is only one element to be conjugated in the articulation of hitherto unknown conjunctures, conjured into existence not by the will of the author but by the affordances of things observed, the languages and media deployed, and the permutations they are capable of when gathered through biography and accident at the lens of meeting between living and lived. Thus we must also take the essay very seriously indeed.

As Benjamin has it of the translator, what the essayist makes is a new thing shaped like an old thing, constructed of many of the same parts. Inevitably the translator and the essayist bring other materials: the target language, the empathy a writer feels for their subject. And here the delightful ambiguity of the word 'subject' makes itself felt. If the essayist is twice a subject – as grammatical agent and as historically subjugated – the subject about which she writes engages her subjection in its effort to become that which articulates itself in language. : to translate itself as a text written in a language learned strives to remake itself in the mind of a reader whose maternal language it is not. Such interweavings turn text into textile, unthreading in order to make a new embroidery with the old cloth, one which is in some (seven) senses ambiguous.

The essay's ambiguities are generative to the degree that they lack the unifying coherence of disciplinary knowledge. The assay weighs, and in its instrumental form seeks the purity of gold among the dross. What is important about the essay as form is its capacity to separate out the dross from the gold of 'is and 'ought', and to hoard the waste. It is in this second sense that the essay is about: it seeks out the vacant form left by the extraction of disciplinary truths and values, the lesson left behind, the bathwater which retains the memory of the baby and the bathtub

Humanity craves order. Our instincts instruct us to in-form the world. Like any other instinct, when driven to excess the love of order becomes fascist; and like all drives, it takes on specific shapes in specific epochs. Today the rage to order takes two characteristic forms: the unit of commodity exchange and the probabilistic likelihoods of biopolitical population management. Emergence – order out of chaos – is the theme of culture and neoliberalism both: today the essayist must reject coherence and even flow, when rhizomes and nomadism characterise corporate and indeed planetary governance. The essay's task is to address the absences, to work at the borders, of disciplined knowledge and the management of values. The essay is concerned with the ephemeral quality of connection, the personal nature of thinking rather than the institutional form of thought. The essayist makes gestures to describe the elusive movement of time. She is at heart an aesthete concerned for the fleeting sensory, intellectual and moral impression that arises from necessarily brief encounters with the worldliness of things, processes and behaviours, their specificity rather than their typicality, the event in detail rather than the aggregation of evidence.

If in the process the essay draws on or crates new truths or values, that is to be expected: the essay cannot pretend – like a tract or research report – to stand free of history. It will be accommodated back into the taxonomies of the database economy. Its freedom is not therefore illusory, however, but temporary, formed in the socio-physical time that gives it birth in the moment of wonder. We know better than to look for system in the best of essays, even as we recognise their authors' tropes of language, habits of thought, and structures of perception continually orient them towards a familiar constellation. The virtue of any given essay is how far it diverges from that familiarity while remaining faithful to what it observes> Not how it conforms to or confirms an expectation. To contradict oneself is, in this circumstance, a virtue, since speaking against is the rudimentary form of dissent. The author should no more defer to his own authority than her reader, but seek dialogue with things that refuse to agree, and thus to introduce the dissenting voice of things into the coherent projects of modernity.

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