Where I went astray

This is really perhaps one of the hardest things to realize, the way in which we ourselves have gone astray, our own nihilism or pretension. And this is because persistence itself in something, no matter how refined and careful, leads inevitably to nihilism. This is because we can merely follow the forms in persistence, while what defines the essence of history is, oddly enough, precisely its mode of negation, the way in which it attacks persistence. (Which, yes, is itself a kind of persistence, “an era”, but this is not a contradiction (merely a semantic issue) since we are talking about two kinds of persistence — the persistence of appearances and the real persistence of negation.) The effort here, however, will be to consider this as a real historical force rather than simply a bit of moral masochism. Some concepts:

1) The trickster — the trickster is the one who makes us aware of our own nihilism. Whenever two cultures collide there is always a trickster experience. We are always a more dogmatic or dumb than we think, assuming we are are honest in this encounter and not merely defensive. The trickster is different from the rogue, I mean, as I use these words — the former is oriented towards “attack”, “aggression” (in a convoluted and strangely non-aggressive way) while the latter is oriented towards self-interest. This might make sense, the original title of this blog was “No more rogues”.

2) Feminism — This is a real story about an instance when I’ve gone astray. I distinctly remember now, suddenly, something I said about a month ago — well, let me just quote myself, since I Ctrl-F’d my notes:

Feminism, understood as the one-to-one mapping of our own existential condition (bitterness and euphoria) onto the female life (that is, it is not a new way to look at things), is, I discovered with surprise, enough to explain that most mysterious aspect of world history, the creation of the subconsciousness. (Madame Bovary as mapping.)

The idea here is that feminism is a “one-to-one mapping” (“isomorphism” as I use it here) and not “a new perspective”. This seems almost methodical, since the traditional way of understanding women tends to exoticize them, ie, it tends to emphasize how they are different, mystical, in either a good or a bad way. But this is actually not quite methodical since the awareness of the moments of mapping do not come methodically (so the emphasis is on “existential” — I’m not saying that we are all human because we all bleed or require food) but rather randomly via insight. “The creation of the subconscious” is probably what I call the “mode of negation of a historical era” here.

I went astray in that my understanding of isomorphism and love quickly departed from this original understanding. — it became “monolithic”, it emphasized the self’s ability to relate via art or love. This last essay on professionalism, too, emphasized the self’s experience of the essential difficulty of inheritance.

But a month ago, this proposal was very different (ie, and right rather than wrong). It proposed that we can only understand world history by mapping our own existential condition (which includes art, love, professinoalism) to another. (And perhaps all we’ve done in the interim is further develop our “map”, but this seems almost like busywork.) This mapping is not, as I thought, the discovery of — from the last entry — “the discovery of someone just like us, even if they are our opposites” — but rather the moment when we are blasted out of ourselves, the moment we realize our own nihilism from the position of another who is just like us and is able to have an emptying out effect on us for precisely this reason — someone who is more ourselves than we are, in a sense.


Let me actually talk about another real-life story, which was a conversation I had with my aunt. The basic trajectory here will be “follow your nose”, ie, the attempt to talk about how aunt displaces me via this isomorphic theory — with my aunt as the trickster. The conversation really concerned, well, discourse itself, and the proper role of indulgence. In Chinese, the word “liaotian”, literally, to speak about everything under heaven, refers to the discursive, indulgent, way of talking that, maddeningly enough, insists on the persistence of differences.

This I feel is relevent — there was this one time when I was getting to know my roommate, who was Chinese — and, let me just be frank, an absolute idiot. Anyways, I spent a lot of hours talking to this guy because I talking aids me (it is, after all, the source material for this very essay) and because I thought he was listening. Only after a long time did I realize that not only did he not understand all the most critical terms I was using, he thought we were “liaotian”-ing, ie, as opposed to attempting some kind of intellectual work, of developing points, of self-understanding, of changing the opinions of the other, and so on. This was enormously unsettling to me and I absolutely bristled when this dawned on me. To this day I have violent fantasies of viciously beating this fellow, I mean, to the brink of death, so he would know what pain was, so he would know that in this world that differences between words mattered and that not knowing this could lead to enormous pain. I’m pretty convinced that this is a relatively common experience.

The word “difference” is obviously very, well, difficult here — but we don’t actually want to spend to much time on this word, which appears probably like 10 or 20 times (counting synonymns) in this essay, and particularly in the above to passages. I, in the above dramas, insist that there is no difference between people (that discourse should be aimed at the resolution of differences), but insist on the differences between words. I insist on the differences between words or expressions but on the non-difference of ideas. Liaotian insists on the differences between people but, on some other level, on no difference at all which I — I thought — led to a total lack of engagement or listening. But that’s not really where we want to go there — I mean, we don’t want to go into some universal examination of the concept of difference — what’s interesting is precisely where the differences are thought to lie.

Obviously talking to my aunt was a different experience — for one, she is not an absolute idiot. For another thing, she had something to say, I mean, she was an active participant in this convsersation about discourse, about where exactly there were or weren’t differences in humans. (So that liaotian seems like a consequence of this model of the human.)

I had gone astray — but how? This is not a question of moral self-reflection (as it was above, in the feminism example) but rather the question of her power to displace me. She understood full well the role I was playing, the moral high-ground I was taking (I was) and insisted that there was something vacuous about the high ground, something that I couldn’t see in my effort to insist on some realism of ideas — the distinction or the definedness of ideas. I insisted that ideas were distinct, the difference between yes and no, but in fact this distinction was merely a performance — even a chance to make money, to make my way in the world, ie, merely something interesting — that could not answer to the strange ways in which underlying  motivations helped people shape ideas, and which liaotian was adapted for.

TBC: More on liaotian


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