On Ontology & Writing

This post started after I felt that I needed a quick way to explain the way I see and feel writing. And the way I write. This have to do with some critique on my writing lately – not in the “how dare thou offend moi!” sense, but in the way that the critique reminded me to go back and search the places where I drew my understanding of writing from. I remembered Donna Haraway pretty much nailed it down in an interview I read with her, on The Haraway Reader. Then I read it more thoroughly, and saw that we disagree on some things. But let’s start with the agreeable part.

it is not altogether intentional. Writing does things to the writer. Writing is a very particular and surprising process. When I am writing, I often try to learn something, and I may be using things that I only partly understand […] This is not altogether a scholarly proper thing to do […] My style is not only intuitive, but also the result of deliberate choice, of course. Sometimes people ask me “Why aren’t you clear?” and I always feel puzzled, or hurt, when that happens, thinking “God, I do the best I can! It’s not like I’m being deliberately unclear! I’m really trying to be clear!” […] However, I like layered meanings, and I like to write a sentence in such a way that – by the time you get to the end of it – it has at some level questioned itself. There are ways of blocking the closure of a sentence, or of a whole piece, so that it becomes hard to fix its meanings.

This. Well, pretty much this. I’m not being vague on deliberate. I’ll sometimes vague things deliberately if I’m not certain about them, of course. But I’m speaking about the times where and when I’m writing something so precise, so little, that the very act of writing about it so-called taking it out of proportions, of logic, of understanding. Chasing a rainbow, a fragment of idea. That’s the kind of thing I do, a lot. Not because I enjoy driving humanity crazy (well, at least not *that way*), but because that’s the way I think of tiny fractures of life. Big. That’s the thing, in my opinion, about layered meanings – they’re not layered in the same level in the text. They’re layered by analyses in the text, the text itself and in the reader’s mind. I’ll throw in some context for you –  did I ever mention that Faulkner is my favorite writer?

So far, so good. But here enter my doubts on that matter, as seen by Haraway.

I like that, and I am committed politically and epistemology to stylistic work that makes it relatively harder to fix the bottom line […]
the idea that as soon as you name something and believe in a name, there is an act of idolatry involved; the idea that the names of God are always finally deeply suspect; the idea that spirituality has a more negative quality to it; the idea that if you seriously are trying to deal with something that is infinite, you should not try to attach a noun to it, because then you have fixed and set limits to that which is limitless, and the whole point of God is about a kind of eternal totality that is not the totality of a system. It is not a systemic totality. It is a different kind of totality. It is an unnameableness. […]

A-ha, let us ditch every last fragment of the scientific way of producing knowledge! But no, alas, Haraway is more clever than that. At least, in my reading of her. Once you write on certain subjects – and if you’re honest with yourselves, you know that whatever it is you’re writing about, you don’t understand it 100% from every angle. And that’s OK: that’s part of the magic, the wonder, and the academic building of knowledge. That’s the way I see that “systemic totality”. Write scientifically; aspire to catch that rainbow epistemologically. That’s the most we can do, with our language. Because

categories aren’t frozen. We are more inventive than that. The world is more lively than that, including us, and there are always more things going on than you thought; maybe, as Katie King taught me, less than there should be, but more than you thought! Second, you can use categories to trouble other categories. Marilyn Strathern formulated this very wonderful aphorism: “It matters which categories you use to think other categories with” […] You can turn up the volume on some categories, and down on others. There are foregrounding and backgrounding operations. You can make categories interrupt each other. All these operations are based on skills, on technologies, on material technologies. They are not merely ideas, but thinking technologies that have materiality and effective. These are ways of stabilizing meaning in some forms rather than others, and stabilizing meanings is a very material practice.

Now we’re talking. Deconstruct forever; but make sure to construct something to hold onto while you preform the deconstruction. And the best way, I think, to make sure that people will get you and climb that building you’re trying to build, layer by layer, is by writing scientifically. By the rules. With the best broken and deconstructed epistemology you can come up with. That’s the kind of critical thinking I like. That’s shaking the categories.

Thirdly, I find it important to make it impossible to use philosophical categories transparently. There are many philosophers who use cognitive technologies to increase the transparency of their craft. But I want to use the technologies to increase the opacity, to thicken, tp make it impossible to think of thinking technologies transparently […] I will stress that category-making of materiality […] Thinking is involved in all these material practices, but category formation, category manipulation is a different skill.



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