My friends Paula and Marnie are editing a new publication called Public Good, and some of the things we’ve talked about including public-ness in art/writing/thought and that shadowy hyperactive and under-active word ‘good’ have led me to think more about recent experiments or ‘explosive sneezes’ in my writing.
I’d been flicking through this book that had been published in English in 1991, written by Julia Kristeva – the title was ‘Strangers to ourselves’.
I found this passage:
“The distinction set forth in the Declaration (of Independence) between “humanity” (whether it is ‘natural’ or symbolic’ is a moot point) and “citizenry” maintains the requirement of a human, tran-historical dignity, whose content never the less needs to be made more complex, beyond the 18th Cent optimistic naivety…
So dignity, what it could be or be capable of, is composed of differences prioritised in the realms of ‘humanity’ and ‘citizenry’. What a great place to start to think about strangers or strangeness and its many forms…especially at the moment when I’m responding to news in many guises in my writing – a list that includes; inflation, a Christmas tree on an army base, petrol, superstition, Zimbabwe, sport, narcissism and holidays.
But before I talk more about Kristeva, here is something from Eliot Weinberger’s essay, Karmic Traces that’s going to help me flesh these twists of intention and dalliance out:
“Vasana, which literally means ‘scent’, is karmic residue, the stuff-as ineffable as smell-that remains from a past life. Each life produces vasanas, which remain dormant until one is reincarnated in the same species. That is, the vasanas from your life as a cat will only be triggered when, a thousand incarnations later, you are a cat again.”
When writing to Paula about these traces I started to relate them to pursuits of the public and the good. Without much methodical thought I drew these conclusions:
– there is a common pursuit of ‘good’ and a huge population of traces of it
– ‘good’ resides in the variety of traces that we experience in various forms of sociability such as politics, ethics, arts and the sciences etc
We have ‘good’ principals that can be accessed (enlivened is a better word) through traces specific to certain fields or professions.
We first aim for ‘good’ without having preconceived ideas about how it might be realized, and in which field or profession the trace will reveal itself, and from where it will give us a decent whiff of the ‘good’ stuff.
The real potential lies in the fact that a pursuit of the ‘good’ could make us appear in any number of fields, from politics to physics – how we re-familiarize ourselves with traces of ‘good’ sharpens the context of the field in which the pursuit has led us.
Does this mean that by sharpening the trace we sharpen the good and the social?
This seems an interesting expansion of how we would usually consider politics or the public in relation to the ‘good’ – public doesn’t lead to ‘good’ rather (or also) the pursuit of ‘good’ traces leads us to an unpredictable area of the public domain in which we can get to work to sharpen these ‘traces’ and explode them or sneeze at them or care for them depending on the dignity at stake.
The capacity of good and its public manifestations explode sometimes, expand in pleasant and unpleasant ways, but open new doors in which we decide the balance that is liveable….
Kristeva talks about these moments of the liveable and unliveable in terms of understanding strangeness and its many explosions:
‘Individual particularistic tendencies, the desire to set oneself up as a private value, the attack against the other, identification with or rejection of the group are inherent in human dignity, if one acknowledges that such a dignity includes strangeness. That being the case, as social as that strangeness might be, it can be modulated – with the possibility of achieving a polytopic and supple society, neither locked in to the nation or its religion, nor anarchically exposed/apposed to all of its explosions.’
I’ve posted a poem that I think relates very little to all but an exploration of strangeness – I think strangeness is enlivening when situated with a conception of ‘public’ and ‘good’ – which are at the heart of a lot of writing that I’m interested in reading. The poem is called ‘Drip of sleep’.
Drip of sleep
we nap in preparation as others have done before us, a
legacy of prone company.
there are drips we face that wear us down, disheveling our
there are others in motion, already lying down – drips that
course through old snacks.
the lost hay of human slumber spikes us, and we pass out
sharp under a falling-needle.