Tonight I have succumb to a temptation to engage in a debate over the value of discursive writing. As a precaution, and a matter of conscience, I want to preface what follows with some remarks on the perils of argumentation. The struggle to convince can be indistinguishable from contests over dominance, or broader needs for affirmation. Fraternal dueling is part of the insiduous gravity of the university and its institutional values. There is a prevalent tendency to overestimate the consequences of disputes, so that intellectual comradery becomes an indulgence in fantasies of civic masonry, such that some great architectural project is imagined, and there is deliberation over the arrangement of beams. Keeping these caveats in mind, let us proceed with the argument.
Discursiveness can be distinguished from formal or structured writing as a matter of intellectual culture. This contrast introduces an ethnographic relativism which situates the debate outside the constraints of any discipline. Maybe a discipline is what exists only after all the serious debates have been settled – it’s the space where everyone can just get to work without questioning the value of the enterprise. Ethnographic relativity provides a neutral medium for dialogue between intellectual universes which would otherwise talk past each other.
The work of formalists can certainly be useful and well respected, though this assimilates it with the technologies of capital and elite property relations. Symbolic canons and specialized notations are like heavy intellectual equipment which can repeat specific operations, and so they are enlisted as resources in the development. Formal writing combines a host of valued qualities – visibility, intelligibility, verifiability, universality, durability, exchangeability, and utility – which are precisely the general values of modernity.
The value of formulaic writing gets problematic when we consider how it becomes available for future enterprises which cannot be anticipated today. To appreciate this risk, consider the history of Marxist activism. International socialism was a universalist project, yet today much of the work it accomplished has been appropriated by financial capitalists. Contemporary formalists might assume that they are engaged in virtuous civic labor, whereas they could just as well be arming the tyrants of the future. The value of universal knowledge is equivocal because it can be deployed in unforeseeable projects.
Discursive writing cannot be ascribed any general values, because that sort of generalization is the business of formal writing. The advantage of discursive writing is that it expresses singularities. And that can only be accomplished through the formlessness of the fragment.
Common arguments for discursive writing are repeated in humanities classrooms. Most important is how this writing accomplishes something at an aesthetic level, such as the figuration of time and space. This writing ruminates over the enigmatic residues of the past. This witnessing of mysterious alterity can be disrespectful to the reader, because it does not relate to anything in the readers frame of reference. This displaces the reader and maybe puts them on the path to becoming another reader. This writing cannot be ascribed values because it is participating in the creation of new values.
Referring to discursive writing as ‘literature’ emphasizes how it slides between genres. This is where expression abandons the commitment to having its own form, so that writing passively adopts whatever form is suitable for the expression of conditions. This gesture of abandonment is a way of yielding so that something else can be expressed, which is the singularity of conditions which have never been expressed before, and for which there are no linguistic conventions available. This writing reconfigures the limit of the expressible, rendering some things unspeakable, and giving voice to the hitherto unspoken. Literature is where the faculties of language are abandoned so the singular might find the chance for expression.
This poststructuralist rhetoric should be distinguished from the actual expression of singularity, which is difficult to accomplish within the coordinates of institutionalized education, and only rarely gets published as doctrine. Critical theory only manages to express a general rhetoric of the singular. Even when academia ventures into apparently more authentic singularity, then there is usually a translation back into familiar concepts. If there is going to be an expression of real singularity, then the entire system of language must shake. Our conventions of expression must come under the foreign power of the singular conditions, because otherwise we are just collecting specimens for our cabinets of curiosity.
This prospect of ‘shaking representation’ gets misinterpreted as a sacred event or an experience of divinity. The principle shortcoming of poststructuralism was its inability to extricate singularity from sacredness. To appreciate this problem, one must consider how secular modernity developed, and especially the way that Hebrew sapient literature exists as a palimpsest beneath the vanguards of secularism such as neo-Kantianism and psychoanalysis. The problem is the way that the sacred survived as this Jewish secret, such that liberal idealism always remained covertly monotheistic and bound up with the superstitions of this ethnic tribe.
Discursive writing has struggled to reemerge from this crisis of Semitic modernity, and this is the context for interpreting the writings of Georgio Agamben. He is a discursive writer who translates history into ethnography, so that crises are resituated within secular contexts, and the sacred loses its affective charge. This transforms the sacred into an epistemological problematic, so that discursive writing reconfigures the expression of the unknown at the limits of knowledge. For example, the enigmatic is a representation of the unknown.
This figuration of negative epistemology is aligned with broader relational transitions. This is the basic ethical orientation of discursive writing. It follows the pulse of institutions without assuming responsibility for the future, and this distinguishes it from political activism. It doesn’t initiate transitions, but merely participates in processes already underway. These processes include metabolizations, mergers, separations, compositions, decompositions, developments, rejuvinations, liberations, submissions and extinctions. There is no ideological privileging of any of these processes, and the only guiding values are those of aesthetic taste.
Transitional processes are oriented corporeally and geographically. For example, discursive writing might participate in some localized optical transition, or it might go to work on the development of some gestural pattern. The question of monetization is always in the background, and this concerns how populations are submitted into the assemblages of industry. There are always new forms of submission getting introduced, and there are always new liberations underway.
Discursive writing takes conceptual bearings in probability. Probability is the common intellectual approach shared across all the defining sectors of modernity such as military, finance, science, management, and aesthetics. The locus of sovereign power can be identified as the communication of this problem. The magnitude of this problem provides the ground against which transitional processes are delimited.
In trying to auscultate an institutional pulse, discursive writing descends into the night of Dionysian instincts. This is the margin or inverse of the spectacle. The diurnal spectacle exists as the pressure to sell oneself to anonymous others, whereas that pressure is relieved in the night, when the roles are reversed so that one becomes an anonymous other. The institutional pulse is the somniloquence of this anonymous other, which can be figured as infant babbling, an endless stream of muttering on, mumbling away… though most significant in symbolic terms is what bureaucrats refer to as ‘muddling through’ and ‘mulling over’.
Muddling through is the informal side of institutional transformation, which is unrelated to what modernizers of previous generations called revolution or reform. This process comes to attention in rare instances, like when Deng Xiaoping called on people to ‘cross the river by feeling the stones’.
Rational developments generate instinctual remainders which go unmetabolized, and the danger of this irrationality gets associated with the sacred. Discursive writing is an alternative to the sacred, in that it’s a way of playing with instincts excluded from institutional representation, like how children are delighted when they try on costumes.
Institutions may attempt to expel the nocturnal play of discursive writing since it gets associated with the forces that disrupt the representation of developmental values. Or else they may attempt to absorb it dialectically, so that it can be displayed as something transgressive, which could be seductive or stigmatized. There are attempts to place it into a quarantine which is called the faculty of the imagination, which brings it into association with romantic ideologies of the sacred. Imagination is a genie that investors enslave as the creative charm that humanizes their technology.
Discursive writing is situated cautiously in the field of desire. The bloodlessness of artificial intelligence is suffered as boredom, and this provokes a yearning for an imaginary object which is supposed to make the simulation come alive. In ethnography, the term ‘phallus’ refers to certain dangling appendages attached to the pelvises of ancient Athenian theatrical performers. If this Thing is manifested as flesh then the superego is aroused, which is a return of the sacred, and to avoid this arousal discursive writing displaces it into the inorganic or incorporeal. This reinterprets symbolic castration from an ethnographic angle as an initiation into secular modernity, and as a transaction between populations oriented geographically.