Inaugural Post: A Defence of Not Knowing

I need to start writing more. I say this to myself every day. I take paper from work and jot down ideas, then pile the papers next to my monitor in the hopes that one day they’ll become something. They never do. I like the idea of sitting down and writing all day, then all the next day, and the next, but, like diet and exercise, I’m not able to sustain it. Short bursts and jottings down are all I can manage, and they never accumulate into anything worthwhile. The reason for this blog is to create some kind of synthesis between the goals I feel like I should have and the excuses I make for not getting anywhere.

It is nothing new to be afraid of writing. Chaucer was afraid of writing because he saw it as a challenge to God, whose providence lay in the Word. But that never stopped him from writing. Every writer is scared of having their work out in the world. Who knows what will happen to it out there? The world is a cruel place. What will people say? Late capitalism demands that you ‘put yourself out there’ but when you’re out there you are vulnerable to attack. Why willingly subject yourself to abuse? The nightmare recurs: you finish a piece. You deliver this vital thing which has consumed you for days, weeks, months, perhaps even years, and as soon as it flies the roost its glaring flaws are exposed for all to see. The gaps in your knowledge become ever more apparent; that finished work you saw as a unitary whole is revealed as a patchwork of holes.

Of course, a work is never unitary. Any interaction with a text opens up new possibilities. But you can’t help but take a slight against your work as a slight against yourself. In the school or the university, it’s okay. You’re still learning, you’re meant to be uninformed on this or that, you’re meant to not have read this or that. This gap in your knowledge can fill upon reading this theorist, that writer. Then the world opens up with its terrifying prescience and every other person repeats the same mantra, that this person ‘clearly hasn’t read this or that’. Therefore, why should we listen?

This is why I read a lot. Picking from the ever-growing stockpile of books, some of which will never be read, I work my way through. An illusion of productivity emerges as I attack a Calvino-esque fortress of ‘Books You Mean To Read But There Are Others You Must Read First’; a cluster of fiction and non-fiction, theory, history, sloshing about in my head like an overflowing fish tank. It’s okay, I say. I’m learning. But I wasn’t learning. Reading and reading for months on end ultimately became nothing.

I’m not saying reading isn’t productive. We need to read. How can you write if you don’t know how to read well? But I was reading everything and absorbing nothing; there was no response. And all this time, putting off writing becomes easy as you convince yourself, ‘I still don’t know enough. How can I write about anything when I still don’t know enough? I need to do more research’. But one-sided research gets you nowhere. It’s not enough to read the book. You have to write the response.

The goal is to know more, to understand those feelings and theories and affects which are brought forward when one reads, or watches, or listens. If I want to understand these, I need to write about them. This means showing myself as much as it does showing others; showing the gaps in my knowledge as well as the shapes. The goal is to open a dialectic of sorts, a chilling prospect when one faces a lifetime of concern over avoiding finishing or releasing any writing. In his introduction to The Modernist Papers, Fredric Jameson notes that ‘for good or ill, the dialectic requires you to say everything simultaneously whether you think you can or not’ (p. ix). He’s not being didactic here but rather sharing in an anxiety. It’s a concern that permeates the work. What a terrifying thought! we can all say, Jameson included. What with all the historical context there has ever been. All the shifting planes of modernity, he knows as well as we do that his is a task which is fated to be incomplete as soon as it starts.

At least, that’s my view on it. Others might disagree. The dialectic relies on other voices- a one-sided argument goes nowhere closer to a perceivable truth. We need people to tell us what we’ve missed, what we haven’t read yet. Again, this is nothing new. The academic community (ideally) thrives on being told the shortcomings of its arguments; we’re told over and over that living is a learning experience. Overcoming fear of criticism is always apparent, not a revelation. It’s a realisation we already know. It’s something that just has to be done, and as any writer would tell you, it’s really hard.

In the introduction to Against Interpretation and Other Essays, acclaimed writer and essayist Susan Sontag reflects on her past critical work:

Before I wrote the essays I did not believe many of the ideas espoused in them; when I wrote them, I believed what I wrote; subsequently, I have come to disbelieve some of these same ideas again- but from a new perspective, one that incorporates and is nourished by what is true in the argument of the essays. Writing criticism has proved to be an act of intellectual disburdenment as much as of intellectual self-expression.

Both Sontag’s and Jameson’s introductions relate a concern and an acknowledgement; yes, there is anxiety in writing, concern for change, in one’s own work and in the wider world, but there’s also a liberation. The change is inevitable and exciting. That two introductions are quoted here isn’t a coincidence. In those essay collections, introductions are both retrospective and forward thinking, looking back on an oeuvre of work while also pointing ahead to its presentation.

I would like this introduction to have a similar function. While books are the focus here, this blog will cover all aspects of ostensibly wasting time; films, games, maybe some music. The point is to get somewhere, but not to stay there. This is a nomadic project, with no endpoint, no goal, and no defined methodology. It’s about recovering agency (whatever that means in an era where the unitary, acting subject has become such a troubled concept). Let this be the start of a learning experience. Of course, you don’t know enough. That’s why you have to write it down.