By: Lia JohnsonSculpture by Bruno Catalano
I’ve finished reading approximately two non-curricular books on my own since starting college. As a lover of literature, this figure is concerning. It seems to both represent a slow decline into intellectual apathy and spit in the face of the information age. Centuries of human brilliance are out of copyright, freely available, and even more ideas are being shared by contemporary thinkers free of charge. I feel as though beyond my crowded, unread bookshelf lies an invisible library stretching back to the fires of Alexandria. And yet I type and type and twiddle my thumbs, I wait to have the time when I know very well that time is continuous and constant despite my skewed student’s perspective.
It’s not like I’ve been doing nothing—in fact, I know exactly where this time and energy for leisure reading is going. College has strewn excerpts over my desk in bent and crumpled waves of white, and I’m feeling like Ahab poking the water for his whale. All these texts are hideously underlined, passages marked with fat messy five-point stars and references to other authors. The connections are clear and maddening. They can be viewed through each other, or extrapolate on each other, or change each other’s meaning just by stuffing new words into the observer’s analytic vocabulary. Something elusive has bit my leg indeed, and I’m out for blubber.
But it’s exhausting, this thought trip provided by remarkable professors in a challenging department, where words matter most. While the generally accepted definition of rhetoric is something along the lines of “the art of effective or persuasive means of writing or speaking”, Rhetoric as a discipline throws all faith in absolute definition out the window. We read snippets of Marx’s Capital, Foucault’s History of Sexuality, etc. and not for analysis of devices either. Language here has taken a look inside itself, though only through the lens of language. While that subjectivity of perspective may appear futile, we learn that it’s no reason to toss out the Canon for a pinhole.
It’s all about understanding the optics. Not to create a new and perfectly unoppressive language, but to adjust our own to see the picture a little closer to life, and even set the camera down every once in a while. I feel like I was born and bred with a fisheye, all events and emotions blown up and cartoony at the center and distorted out of relevance at the edges. As I grew older, life felt telephoto, focused on things out of reach with no conceivable image of the present. Now I feel the hope of zooming out instead of in, a slow and agonizing journey towards 50mm, aperture widening all the while. And it feels good. It feels purposeful. It feels closer to the human eye as it’s meant to feel. But it lets in so much light, and it lets you see dangers closer than you would’ve imagined.
I feel as though this change in perspective has made fiction even more necessary to read, though time’s got me in a crunch. I need language to dictate me out of my own reality. I need willful suspension of disbelief, desperately, to keep me from falling when Rhetoric pulls the rug from under me. The rug causing so much static friction: the impossible dilemma of language’s limitations to convey reality. Otherwise, I’m trapped in definitional impossibility, suspiciously deconstructing, adjusting ISO and aperture and shutter speed to the specifications of philosophers born in a different world with different tools and neglecting the fluidity of the present image.
If there’s anything I should be suspicious of, it’s this thought-tripping. I’m starting to realize the advantages and disadvantages of thought structures and exclusive identities. Some ideas seed themselves in your skull, gulp up every last ounce of your attention, and pry your brain apart with new growth. They become essential, providing a new system of roots to support the wild synthesis of matter and energy we try to call consciousness. But so much is unconscious, so much is without words. It surely seems as though our little thought trips, the forefront bold lettered voice-in-our-head thoughts, really are us.
After all, we know the world through narrative. Our expressions outside of body movements are verbal, written, or produced materially. Any time we talk about ourselves as “I” is a confession of selfhood. The majority of novels and poetry are written in first person, and those composed in second or third merely suspend our disbelief of being addressed by the author. Visual art and objects contain some sense of story, existing as a moment captured or use intended. Even abstract art, considered the least adherent to normative structures of communication, physically evidences the artist’s movement in a way that tells us something about them in that moment of creation.
All this selfhood surrounds us, all these illusions of totality, and logically cogent theory is no exception. As we read more, as we manically connect ideas and develop our own personal means of making sense of the world, we must consider the constant play between conception and construction made illusory by the definitionalism in language and identity. We see the world, discover our needs, and use and develop tools to meet them. In this way, reality guides thought and thought breaks into physical reality. Produced reality produces us by passing environments, social structures, and means of communication to the next generation. This occurs precisely through their introduction as total reality to the forming human, whose desire to understand and inhabit their environment could not allow them to assume otherwise.
Now I’m typing and typing and twiddling my thumbs, illustrating the deconstructive structure of my own mind and hoping it has something to do with yours. Hoping the idealists aren’t right, that I’m not just in my own head, that I might escape this wildly analytic, youthfully presumptuous perspective that renders the world nearly unwriteable by providing a means of understanding writeability. That’s why I have to return to the narrative “I”, re-expose myself to the facets of fiction, stop adjusting the lens for a second to see light in a new way. Art captures life like a jewel captures light. What falls so innocently over everything is focused by skillfully angled cuts in hard material, reflecting and refracting, til mundane fluorescent glitters like the horizon. The horizon looks so sharp, a perfect line in the sky, though it’s just an illusion of perspective. The straight line is a curved line, the ocean is continuous and constant as time, and it’s time for Ahab to steer his search toward other seas.