Intrusive Thoughts and Cultural Trauma

Perhaps nothing written is meant to go unread, even if the reader is only a creature of the writer’s mind, an attentive and exacting self that compels refinements of honesty. 

— Marilynne Robinson, New York Times 11/17/13*

We never come to thoughts.  They come to us.

                    –– Martin Heidegger, “Aus der Erfahrung des Denkens” (1947)

There is no thought without urgency.

               –Jean-Luc Nancy, Qu’appelons-nous penser? (2012/2013)


Whenever thoughts do come to us, they come as intruders.  They break in upon us, disruptive, urgent, unruly, and demanding.  But after all, just as chipmunks are for chipmunking (as I used to like to say in my classes before I retired from teaching), that’s what thinking’s for.

Some of the unruly thoughts that have recently been urging themselves upon me, disrupting my thoughtlessness and demanding my attention, have come to me while reading a new publication by French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy.  Actually, it is the subsequently reviewed and corrected transcript of a public conversation between him and Daniel Tyradellis, a younger German philosopher.   That conversation took place in Berlin just one year ago, in November 2012, and was published a bit less than a year later by diaphanes, in both French and German versions.  I’ve been reading the French edition, entitled Qu’appelons-nous penser? (Bienne-Paris:  diaphanes, 2013), which can be rendered into English as “What do we call thinking?

The title given the book in its simultaneously published German version is in one way, perhaps, more suggestive of what is under discussion in its pages.  The book was brought out in Germany as Was heisst uns denken?  That title is richly ambiguous.  Uns is German for us; and the question posed by the German title can be heard—and should be, if we’re to be thoughtful in our hearing—in two different ways at once.  On the one hand, it can be heard as asking,  “What to us is called thinking?” or, in more colloquial English, “What do we call thinking?”  Yet on the other hand, the German question can be heard to ask,  “What calls us to think?” or, to interpret the German a bit more heavily, “What calls for thought, or thinking, from us?”

One reason the two ways of hearing the German should both to be kept in mind, at least if we are to hear thoughtfully ourselves, is because, of course, what we ourselves happen to call thinking is clearly not altogether unrelated to whatever it is that calls for thinking from us.  After all, insofar as our thinking and our calling are in order, what we call thinking should surely and above all be whatever it is we are called upon to do, by whatever it is that most especially calls thinking forth from us.   Indeed, a good initial stab at giving an ostensive definition of just what we call thinking—just what we call by that name, or at least what we should call by it—is that thinking is what we do when we respond appropriately to the call of what calls upon us to think, obeying the command it issues us.

That attempt at definition will be informative for us, of course, only if we can identify what it is that calls for thinking from us, as well as what it is we are supposed to do, to answer that call.  Otherwise, it tells us nothing, or at least nothing pertinent to determining what it is to think.

All that is old hat, of course, to anyone at all familiar with Martin Heidegger’s 60-year-old work, Was Heisst Denken?   The title Nancy and Tyradellis give to the published transcript of their public dialogue, especially but not only in its German version, is meant to evoke that earlier work by Heidegger, the title of which has been translated correctly enough into English as What Is Called Thinking? but which, as anyone who has read that work knows, could also have been no less correctly translated as What Calls For Thinking? and/or What Calls Thinking Forth?

Well, what does?

I won’t try directly to answer that question in this post.  I’ll just content myself with giving some indications, which I hope will excite some thoughts of my readers’ own about the matter, impelling them to think about it for themselves.

*     *     *     *     *     *

In the closing lines of his conversation with Tyradellis, Nancy tells us that his thinking, at least, is always “in response to questions or requests” (to give my own free translation, as I will continue to do in the citations from him that follow).  “That also says that ‘think’ signifies ‘feel,’ ‘experience,’ ‘receive’,” he goes on to tell us.  Feel, experience, or receive what?  Nancy answers that question for us, too.  To think, he writes, is to feel, experience, or receive “impulses, affects, excitations, in-citations,” and the like.

So, according to Nancy, thinking is the response we are called upon to make to what comes to us from without, and incites us to think, gives us the impulse or urge to do so.  That is the urgency of all thinking.  And as the line from Nancy the reading of which incited me to cite it at the beginning of this post already says, without urgency, there is no thought at all.

What, exactly, does what calls for us to think call for from us?  Nancy gives us a significant hint (as though incited to provide the answer before we even felt the impulse to ask the question), when, earlier on in his conversation with Tyradellis (pages 20-21), he begins by talking about the experience of writing.  He says that “in writing there is an impulsion” toward “that altogether particular pleasure that one experiences when one sees that the writing proceeds of itself, as though on its own.” The pleasure at issue is the one we have all felt from time to time, when our writing goes so exceedingly well that it writes itself through us, as it were, without us any longer working at it especially.

Furthermore, Nancy adds, not just he but everyone wants to see what he or she writes “appear, and stay alive!”  That is, what Nancy goes on to describe as the pleasure of seeing one’s way open up of itself before one “in an entirely autonomous manner,” is a pleasure internal to the very process of writing as such:  To write is to go along this autonomously self-opening way—a way which, as it were, uses the writer’s writing to open itself step by step as the writer writes along it.

Coupled with this pure autonomy of writing is an equally pure anonymity.  Precisely because the way that opens itself up in writing finally does so all on its own, no one can ever finally own what is written.  In the final analysis, what’s written never belongs as a possession to any one person or even any possible range of persons, all the way out to the limitless infinity of “everybody.”  Even when one writes “privately,” as one does in a personal journal, for example, one experiences the same “impulsion” that Nancy talks about:  the impulsion toward letting what one has written go forth of itself, to live a life of its own.

That is why, whenever one writes, no matter how “private” one intends to keep it, one always writes to be read.  That is, one always writes to be read not just by oneself, but by another, even if that other “is only a creature of the writer’s mind,” as American writer Marilynne Robinson writes to be read in the lines above, from her review of the recent publication of the Flannery O’Connor’s personal journal of prayers addressed to God and never intended for publication, at least as publication is ordinarily thought of.   We might well add that even an atheist might well write just such a prayer journal, addressed to just that same addressee, with just that same expectation of being read, even though the writer is convinced there is no God there to receive the address.  That’s just another way of saying what Marilynne Robinson says in the lines I’ve cited from her, lines themselves incited by her reading of O’Connor’s private prayer journal, written to God alone.

All that’s just how it is with writing:  Writing is always, as writing, both impulsively urgent, and uncontrollably free, both wholly autonomous and totally anonymous.

It’s the same with thinking.  It, too, goes where it will, a law unto itself; and nobody owns it, either.

Writing for myself at least, I never know what I think till after I’ve finished writing it.  For that reason, I always hated it when teachers during my interminable school days would make me write out and turn in an outline before writing and turning in the paper supposedly guided by that outline.  The only way I was ever been able to do that was by writing the whole paper first, then outlining the thing after the fact, to try to please whatever picky pedant pedagogue required an outline of me.

In turn, that’s one reason I was pleased to read Nancy saying, right after discussing the peculiar pleasure particular to writing, in all its anonymous autonomy (and remarking that, “of course, that has something to do with thought”):   “One doesn’t write philosophy in accordance with a plan:  I want to say such-and-such, I want to produce this or that closed signification.”  Of course, one also doesn’t write without any initial, initiating idea at all—that is, without some sort of impulse, excitation, or incitement to try to go in a certain general direction.  “To be sure,” Nancy writes, “one has an idea; but that idea draws itself out.  And at the end, the result is something that one has not foreseen.”

When I first sat down to write what has become this present post, for example, I had just such a vague, general idea of where I wanted to go.  That idea included working with the passages from Nancy that I’ve been working with.  Bringing in Marilynne Robinson’s remarks did not occur to me at the time, however.  That’s because I hadn’t read them yet.  And that, in turn, is because they were not even published yet—they had not yet “appeared,” to use Nancy’s fortuitously felicitous term.  But then, when I came across those remarks a few days ago, the thought came to me that they fit right in with what I was trying to say.  So I added them to my unplanned plan as it continued to unfold under my very gaze as I continued to write.  (Happy coincidences like that are part of the way it goes with writing and/or thinking, I’ve always found, even if I’ve not always found them when I most felt I needed them.)

One thing that, unlike the remarks from Robinson’s review of Flannery O’Connor’s prayer journal, was always included in my general sense of what I wanted to write about in this post was a passage from another French author besides Nancy.  That is a passage that reading Nancy’s own comments about writing and thinking brought to my mind, unbidden—a passage about “culture” by the post-Lacanian French psychoanalyst Jean Laplanche, in something by him that I also read just recently, namely, “Transference:  Its Provocation by the Analyst,” one of his Essays on Otherness (London and New York:  Routledge, 1999).

The passage at issue is a fine, long one (on pages 223-224) in which Laplanche is discussing Freud’s Der Dichter and das Phantasieren (“Poets and Fantasizing”).  Laplance first observes that Freud nowhere asks the question, “what, quite simply, drives the Dichtersit venia verba [pardon my saying so]—to ‘dicht’ [“poetize,” if you’ll pardon my translating it so].  Why create in order to communicate, and communicate through creating.  And above all, why communicate in this way—that is, by addressing no-one, aiming beyond any determinate person?”

Laplance then goes on to note:  “Modern studies of language clearly show that communication is a pragmatics:  to communicate is to manipulate, to produce an effect on someone.”  Then he goes on—in a discussion that reminds me of one of my own, in The Stream of Thought (New York:  Philosophical Library, 1984), about “novel door-stops,” that is, novels used as door-stops—to acknowledge that, of course, one can engage in “cultural production” (writing novels, or books of philosophy, for example) for “glory and profit,” or even to procure sexual conquests.  “But,” Laplanche remarks, “what an extraordinary going-beyond [that is, what a cumbersome, round-about way] it takes to get there.  Going beyond oneself, but above all going towards another who is no longer determinate, and who will only incidentally be the object of an individual sexual conquest”—if ever!  “Through this dimension,” Laplanche continues,

cultural production is situated from the first beyond all pragmatics, beyond any adequation of means to a determinate effect. . . . The addressee [addressed by “cultural production”] is essentially enigmatic, even if he sometimes takes on individual traits.  So it is with van Gogh’s Theo, who is as much an analyst without knowing it as is Fliess for Freud, for behind him looms the nameless crowd, addressees of the message in a bottle.

This is no sort of elitist position, “for what can be termed ‘the cultural’ exists from the moment the human becomes human:  cave-paintings, idols, and probably music and poetry.”  Such an address to such an anonymous, enigmatic addressee “prolongs and echoes the enigmatic messages by which the Dichter himself, so to speak, was bombarded [namely, by his parents’ or parent-substitutes’ enigmatic messages sent to him when he was an infant].”

In a not so enigmatically significant move, Laplanche replaces the currently omnipresent term “consumer” with that of “recipient” as a name for the one to whom the cultural “product” is addressed.  “It is of the essence of the cultural product,” he writes,

that it reaches him [the recipient] with no pedigree, and that it is received by him without having been addressed to him.  The recipient’s relation to the enigma is thus different from the author’s, a partial inversion of it.  But here too, the relation is essential, a renewal of the traumatic, stimulating aspect of the childhood enigma [that is, of the “enigmatic signifiers”—enigmatic first and above all to their very “senders,” as Laplanche never tires of insisting—sent without even knowing it, by parents baffled about having sent them, to their at least equally baffled children as recipients].

In turn, “the ‘art critic’ ” or critic’s equivalent, including the person who “does non-clinical psychoanalysis,” is

caught between two stools:  the enigma which is addressed to him [that is, the cultural product in relation to which the “art critic” himself or herself is but one of the limitless crowd of anonymous recipients], but also the enigma of the one he [the “art critic”] addresses [in turn], his public (for it is too easy to forget that one always does [such critical or analytical work on cultural products as does the “art critic”] in order to write about it [for/to an anonymous recipient of that new writing], to communicate it in turn.

It is the offer which creates the demand:  a constant proposition in the cultural domain.  The dominance of human needs, undeniable but truly minimal in the domain of biological life, is completely covered over by culture.  The biological individual, the living human, is saturated from head to foot by the invasion of the cultural, which is by definition intrusive, stimulating and sexual.

*     *     *     *     *     *

This very post is itself, of course, a cultural product.  I can only hope that its readers, which is to say the whole anonymous, endless crowd to whom it is addressed, like a message in a bottle, find it “intrusive, stimulating and sexual.”  I feel an impulse to add that, so far as I know at any rate, I am not using it to procure any sexual conquests or for any other pragmatic purpose.  I’m just thinking.  May it in turn, taking on a life of its own, give rise—as Paul Ricoeur once famously (and rightly) said the symbol does—to further thought!

What more could I ask?

* In a review of the recent publication of Flannery O’Connor’s private prayer journal.

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7 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. So two thoughts: one, the very act of having to write an outline, or for a teacher a “lesson plan” restricts the freedom of allowing what is to come.

    Two: How does all this, or does it, connect to plagiarism? This has been a perpetual question of mine. If nothing “belongs” so to speak to the author, then why give the author the credit. If what I am doing with the author is using her/him to stimulate new ways of thinking, and not trying to give an accurate representation of what an author truly means/thinks/intends, is plagiarism relevant? Or perhaps, as an example of what you just wrote above, I just answered my own question. To the degree that the author stimulates the thinking, regardless of whether the author “owns” the work, the author still deserves credit. Yes? No?

    • Yes! I’d say that’s good thinking!

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