I loved writing my dissertation. I was 27, San Francisco was beautiful and cheap and full of freaks, and all I had to do all day was think about how best to think about and express this idea I had. It was incredible to inhabit this one space, to build this structure of words, texts, and ideas into a more or less (mostly less, alas) coherent shape. It was like building a house while living in the house; I got to add whatever room, not to mention mood, I wanted next. It was luxurious.
For the few years after that — that was almost 20 years ago — whoa! — I was always writing a book. I never did anything with my books; publication always seemed like a chore, like another job. The joy, for me, was always the writing. I didn’t do much editing. But I did inhabit a space for many months, even years.
After my son was born and, at the exact same time, San Francisco became incredibly expensive, I no longer had the luxury of writing books. I didn’t have the time or space — physically, emotionally, intellectually. And so I began writing essays, first as a lesser version of a book. But then I came to love the essay — its freedom and brevity, its indulgence of style, its indifference to scholarship, its love of the next move, the next turn of argument or phrase. If writing a book is building a house from the inside out, writing an essay is catching a wave — thrilling, immediate, brief but intense.
Recently, I’ve started writing a book again. As I began writing, I realized that I had a lot of writing on my hard drive from over the years. So I began to peruse it, dig for it, even read it — including my dissertation (or at least parts of it; I will admit I’ve never read the thing all the way through).
There are times I don’t recognize myself. All these quotes and references! All the pedantic readings of the minutia of a text — the prepositions and punctuation of the titles, the use of this or that metaphor, the chapter breaks. Parts of my damn dissertation are large passages from Deleuze in French! And translated by me! (Much Deleuze wasn’t yet translated into English back then.) I don’t remember knowing French that well. It’s a very a strange experience to be reading things I’ve written, to recognize the thinking but not the writing.
Or, rather, I don’t recognize the mode, mood, tone, and posture of the writer. Who is this guy? He seems so, well, annoying. Smart, yes, and out to prove it at every turn. But so annoying. It’s exhausting to read. It must have been exhausting to be me. (It often still is.)
Then I found some essays I wrote in between then and now. And, well, some of them are incredible — so sharp, so insightful, the prose flowing so readily and gracefully from turn to turn of argument. I don’t remember writing or thinking that well, ever.
Writing is odd like that. It’s both us and not us — like shit, hair, or toenails. We make them but then they enter the world, orphaned (as Socrates would say). And then I come along all the years later as if that writing were my own even though I barely recognize it. I see all these different selves punctuating my timeline. Part of me can remember the energy that propelled such writing and such aggressive turns of argument and I at once sigh and shudder.
And yet I do recognize myself, if not in the prose or even the thinking, then in the ideas. But I’ve been conspicuously consistent lo these many years in what I think. So much has happened to me and the world around me — kid, divorce, balding, the internet, cell phones. You’d think my basic vision of the world would have changed. And yet when I think and write about things, I come back to this same idea — that language is not symbolic or representational but constructive and creative and that this yields, and demands, a different way of making sense.
But I question these notions of “coming back” and “the same idea.” No doubt, there is conceptual consistency. But the way I think about this idea, my approach, my focus, my concern keeps shifting. For instance, I wrote 20 years ago that language is a living system, an emergent system and, at the time, that made sense to me. Now, I’m not so sure what that even means as I find myself trying to picture what language is — a separate organism? A part of our flesh? An element like air, wind, earth, and fire? Or an element like atoms? A spectral agent of concepts and bodies? What was once not even in my purview is now my focus. And this shift in focus shifts the idea — its tenor, its shape, it timbre, some of its implications.
I certainly think differently now. I see many of the same things. But when I was younger, I leaned forward in my seat, literally and figuratively. I noted and parsed every darn thing that came my way. I see it, feel it, in my personal archive. These days, I see all those elements but, leaning back, I am less moved by each detail. This shift in posture and hence focus creates different constellations of things and concepts, a different architecture of the idea. I am less interested in proving how smart I am; I am less interested in every little detail (even if attentive to it). I want something else now, a more resonant sensation. I am thinking the same idea with different parts of my body which, in turn, creates shifts in the idea — and certainly in my writing.
I will say that I repeat myself (in Deleuze’s sense of the word — repetition always entails difference). It’s not the same idea that I keep regurgitating (well, sometimes it is); it’s an idea in motion, taking shape and being shaped as I shift my place in the world and the world itself shifts shape.
Henri Bergson says that a philosopher has an intuition, an image of how things go in this world. And then he, or she, spends the rest of their lives trying to articulate that flash, that intuition that this is how things go. I had, and continue to have, that intuition. There are times, for sure, that I think this idea out of habit. But, mostly, I feel it. I see it. I believe it. I know it.
And as it makes its way through my body and spirit (for lack of better words), and as the world changes around me, this intuition is inflected. I am tempted to say it becomes meatier or more refined. But I’m not sure it’s worth trying to quantify it as a more or less. Rather, the idea has shifted its qualities, become something slightly different. Just as light fleeting through the universe bends this was and that with a universe that is infinitely dense, so my ideas are inflected in and through me. (We are all a general theory of relativity.)
In some sense, I’ve been living in the same house, the same space, since I had that flash and wrote that dissertation nearly 20 years ago. But, in another sense, this house and this space keeps morphing, sometimes so radically that I can’t recognize myself. And, while sometimes alienating, it’s always beautiful in its way.