Message to the Department of the Interior
I have decided to grow a second body. This may be of some
concern to you
Twenty years ago, when I was finishing my PhD, many of my peers were “nomadologists”, philosophers (or anthropologists) of the “exteriority of thought”. Following Deleuze and Guattari,** they opposed a particular “image of thought”, the idea that thinking and feeling were things that happened, let’s say, “inside the body.” This image, they declared, was mainly a consequence of capitalist production, a fetishized commodity, an operation of “the State apparatus”, or, if you will, just another government program. I considered myself a fellow traveler. Soused in Wittgenstein, I rejected the notion of a private language, just as Deleuze and Guattari warned against valorizing “the private thinker.” We cannot find ourselves through introspection, I argued, “meaning is use.” Prone to melancholy, moreover, I sometimes resented the solitude of my own inwardness; I wanted to “go outside”. These days, I’m not so sure. With all the excitement out there, I worry about the future of our inner lives.
*The Hounds of No, p. 17.
**See Chapter 12, the “Treatise on Nomadology,” in A Thousand Plateaus, page 376-377.
What relation must one fact have to another
in order to be capable of being a symbol for that other?
A paragraph is about something. It’s actually a minor wonder that we have this ability to make a fact that can so matter-of-factly be about another fact. The trick, of course, is to have something “in mind” when we write. A drawing can represent a person or thing by “looking like” it. On a good day, I can draw a picture of my face that people who know me would recognize. I can also write a paragraph about my face — the blue eyes behind the glasses, the beard, the bald head — that stands in the same relation to my face that the drawing would. That relation is “aboutness”. Importantly, the drawing or the writing can be wrong about the thing it represents. To be about something is to be comparable to it. We can set my face against a depiction of it, or a description of it, and we can, on that basis, judge the representation. This paragraph can be wrong about paragraphs, for example. And now we can discuss it.
If you know something “for academic purposes” you are able to compose a coherent prose paragraph about it. We can even specificy ideal conditions for this “moment of composition”: give yourself five minutes at the end of one day to decide what to say, 27 minutes at the beginning of the next to write it down, and no time to learn anything in the meantime. If you can write under these conditions, you know what you’re talking about. Now consider composing five paragraphs in a row this way, again having decided the day before on a larger thesis. There is nothing unreasonable about this exercise as a test of your knowledge and it is, in fact, a great way to get two or three pages of a paper or book written on any given morning. If we replace the decision the day before with a prompt issued on the day, it is also a perfectly fair test of what your students have learned in your class. They can train for it every morning, one paragraph at a time. If they can do it, so can you.
For some time, I’ve been getting up early. (Most happy writers write in the morning; unhappy writers write whenever they feel like it.) I know this won’t make me a Proust (or a Tolstoy), but there is something satisfying about starting the day, let’s say, intentionally. “Writing,” I once said, “is one of the most deliberate things we do,” and doing it as the first intellectually demanding task of the day just somehow feels right. It makes you feel like a writer. Having written something in the morning, you can go through the rest of the day with a distinct sense of accomplishment, the feeling that you are in fact “contributing to the literature”, that you are part of the conversation. You can look your peers in the eye and tell them what you think now because you have made a serious attempt to articulate what you know. To be sure, our writing doesn’t always succeed, but you can earn even your failures — the seriousness of the writing the moment — simply by being deliberate about it. Decide the day before what you will write and when you will write it. Then give yourself a good morning.
Did you mean “this could go on forever” in a good way?
It takes a moment to write a paragraph. This one was planned yesterday and will take about half an hour to compose. If I were being absolutely rigorous, I would have spent five minutes at the end of my working day deciding what to say and then exactly 27 minutes at the start of today saying it. But I’m a bit jetlagged, which is making my evenings and mornings less reliable than I would like, so this one is being written in a stolen moment after a shift in the library. Still, the aim is to produce what I want to call “durable text”, “publishable prose,” and the “durability” of your writing can almost be quantified: it takes about one minute to read a paragraph like this, but I’m putting those 27 minutes into writing it. This means you can reread it without undermining its coherence; if you are interested, you can keep coming back for more and it will keep on giving. You should be able to read it 27 times in the time it took me to write it and still not wear it out. A paragraph, let’s say, is a moment that may last for ever.