Friday, August 21, 2009

The Literal Trick

It has been quite some time since I sat down to write a blog post. As I settle into Claremont, my hope is that I will find the combination of time and inspiration to write/finish several posts on the brink of my mind. Meanwhile, I have a more minor project to work on (although still important). Like most (all?) philosophers before me, within my philosophical endeavors, I create a web of new vocabulary. Obviously, there is a risk in any novel vocabulary - philosophical vocabulary can easily slip into cryptic academic jargon. Margaret is quite good at challenging me on those grounds; she constantly requests more concrete images and asks "yes, but, what does that mean?" And, truly, meaning is at the heart of it all.

As a Derridean, I often find myself caught between ambiguity and clarity. I've been told before that I revel in ambiguity. That isn't exactly true. Ambiguity is not something to revel in. Instead, it is a reality we cannot escape. Every word is a metaphor. Every phrase is a diamond that refracts light in multiple directions. The modern quest for clarity is a noble one, but it is doomed to failure. After all, even the air we breathe refracts and bends light.

On the other hand, ambiguity may be the beginning of every word, but it is not the ending. Somehow, we etch our glittery, rocky words to refract in a certain direction, with a certain intentionality. Lights (words) scatter but illumine before us. Ultimately, we have to be conscious of where we raise our lanterns. We are responsible for our images, our eikons. And yet, words are not simple, pointed lasers. Perhaps we should be happy they are not - lasers are not particularly useful for radiating a space full of twilight.

The philosophical project (like every project) consists of holding our lanterns, of writing and speaking, responsibly. One of those conscious responsibilities is embracing the diffusion of words. We never say simply what we intend to say. Rather than live in an illusion that we can perfectly convey intended meaning, rather than pretend the room we stand in is already bright, in no need of illumination, we should acknowledge and live within our different wor(l)ds of diffusion. There are no singularities, no singular meanings. Clarity is a shattered goal. A shattered goal that never shattered.

As we grope around in the dark, we simply wish we could focus. One image in view. Light obscures the images we wish to see. Potential overload. The multitude of images break us apart. Safety and security are always beyond our sight. And so we pretend. Clarity is pretension. Our desires deceive our eyes, our imag-ination. We live within our literal tricks.

A literal trick can be self-deception or other-deception (and generally it is both). Truly, when we attempt to deceive others, we are also attempting to deceive ourselves. Deception is relational. Scenarios are easy to imagine. One Christian argues with another Christian. "But you aren't being literal in your interpretation," he might say. "The Bible is the literal truth of God, and you are twisting words and ignoring verses." Every singularity is a weapon. Grasping at authority. Poetry is dangerous, it must be eliminated. The deception must continue.

Or, as another example, one individual argues with another. "But you aren't being scientific. Those stories are (ph)/fantasie! They are not real. They are not literally true." In our age, literal truth and truth have become synonymous. Every literal trick is a weapon, a hammer to be wielded. Literal tricks are designed to shatter our different wor(l)ds of diffusion. If all we have is metaphors, then we will have nothing. All or nothing. Unfortunately for the wielders of the literal trick, we already live in a world of ghosts. Ghosts slain/created by literal tricks. All and nothing are derivative. The truth is that truth, itself, alone, is useless.

At the heart of the literal trick is fear. Rather than engage the plurality of images before us, the multiplicity of meaning, we cower from our phantasie, from our phantoms. We create false foundations to stand upon. "Science is all that is real." "The Bible's words are literally true." False limits. This is not a debate between naturalism and super-naturalism. This is about a conflict between stories. Rather than engage other stories, other images, we pretend one singular story is all that contains meaning. Any meaning exterior, any meaning different, is automatically false. What we do not realize is that no light, no meaning escapes a singularity.

The literal trick is hard to avoid. As we hide in the dark, afraid of what we behold from the light of our lanterns, we feel threatened. Potential overload. In our fear and deception, in our pretension, we put out the light of our lantern, and prepare to use the cold, hard metal to bash every lantern (and every lantern-bearer) that approaches. All or nothing. The literal trick strives for the all and chooses nothing. Every shadow, every ghost needs darkness and light to survive. Ambiguity is not a veil to hide behind; it is a ghost that haunts us, a ghost before our vision. With ghostly visions, flickering in the light, we are afraid. However, it is not our ghosts that should frighten us. Instead, before we prepare ourselves to wield the literal trick, we should ask ourselves a question - "What would we have without our ghosts?"