Saturday, September 15, 2007

The Draughtsman's Contract

What could be more deplorable or pernicious than the triumph of anecdote and common sense over evidence and logic? (see: George W. Bush, presidency ).

Following a childhood and adolescence on the losing side of history, I was privileged to pass several engaging years among more or less like-minded people, during which I developed an intellectual arsenal, and (if I may be so immodest--and this being my own blog, I daresay I may)-- a fair strategy with which to counter the overwhelming tide. Yet the excitement of discovery and collaboration (the apogee of my education) quickly gave way to competition for the academic, social, professional and economic rewards of marginal mastery as demonstrated through increasingly codified and subtle gestures whose refinement went further to impress an internal constituency than it did to advance any more consequential position.

I liked the game; I was good at it. The social identity that was more often a liability in my daily life gave me a marginal edge in the marginal community in which I found myself, the more so because I explicitly rejected the ideological basis of that authority. (Here, I should probably disabuse any reader of the reasonable inference that I am describing a reluctant career in investment banking).

I specialized in the 'got you' moment: exposing internal inconsistencies in various arguments about identity, particularly by demonstrating how they were contradicted by their premises. Sometimes it was enough to observe that another scholar or body of scholarship that you had failed to consider effectively rendered you obsolete. Yes, you. Sometimes it got personal. It was competitive, and occasionally, acutely exhilerating. But it was also exhausting, as I bunkered down into increasingly compulsive research, hairsplitting claims, and straightjacketed prose in an effort to immunize myself against the charges I levied on others.

Then one day (or more accurately, gradually over thousands) I discovered that I owed much of my profound discomfort to the position I'd been occupying on the spearhead of my own petard. If others had failed to acknowledge and adjust fully to the implications of the linguistic turn--if burnt bits of essentialism (to be even more specific) still adhered to whatever new idea you were cooking up-- well, not only was my pot as black, but so had I ruined my own taste.

I quit.

I read Trollope for a year.

I stopped writing for ten.

The whole culture of self exposure and blogging and so forth is in many ways anathema to me and I was astonished to find myself entering the field not long ago, and even more astonished to discover that I was enjoying writing again. I found that being anonymous and having no expectations to satisfy was, tentatively, liberating.

I ventured to imagine I could be personal here, confidential. Confessional, even, within this vast and wonderfully indifferent universe.

But then I realized that, through my own error, I am known to the few people who have visited me here.

My first instinct was actually to delete the blog entirely.

It has taken me three difficult days to write this post. It wasn't my idea, but it barged in and threw out everything else.

There are lots of things I want to talk about. Most are equally unimportant, insubstantial, and insignificant. I haven't kept up with the literature, and I fear I have become inconsistent, and thereby reactionary. A recent respondent reinforced my concern that I have begun to exhibit dangerously libertarian tendencies.

But mostly I don't want to perform again.

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