Fragmented Conversations

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Roland Barthes liked fragments. Last week I read some 40 or so pages of a collection of his interviews, The Grain of the Voice, and amid the zillion or so fascinating things I learned there was this: Roland Barthes liked fragments.

He says the “fragment breaks up what I would call the smooth finish, the composition, discourse constructed to give a final meaning to what one says” (209). He was talking about writing articles and discrete paragraphs instead of book-length works, but that idea of breaking up the smooth finish caught me. And while Barthes might have been horrified to be invoked as blog-philosopher (probably not, he seems pretty cool) this exchange of the fragment for the finished product struck a note with me.

I go through long periods of time with my blog—and with other forms of writing, but primarily the blog—when I’m sick of my own voice. But more, as it’s not really my voice—I generally feel like my word choice mirrors the patterns of my brain and I’ve expressed what I meant to say— I get sick of my blog voice, which attempts to be authentic but (like all narratives that attempt to be single) is just as much of a creation as any twitterbot. It’s because of my perspective—I cast all projects and ideas and thoughts in the past; I generally don’t talk about a problem until it’s sterilized by its solution, neatly tied up in a “and this is what I learned from this” candy coating.

But sometimes there isn’t a point. Sometimes there isn’t even a problem and a solution—sometimes it’s just a passing image that impressed me for some indeterminate reason. And I think that’s ok. Because that’s life.

Today, I’m exhausted. I spent half the weekend watching really stupid TV and the other half frantically trying to catch up on homework. This was not a good idea, just in case anyone is wondering. But yesterday, rounding my sixth straight hour reading Michel Foucault, I had a thought. This guy that I’m reading—Foucault and then a little Barthes—academics have been reading him for decades. I mean, this guy is one of the big guns. Other theorists and academics that I study—pretty much anybody coming after—has studied him, just as I am now. It’s a little like (religious reference ahead: warning!) what I imagine the first Protestants felt—after years of being read to and explained to (which is great, don’t get me wrong [in an undergrad, not religious, sense]), finally reading it for yourself. It’s like becoming your own priest.

[So that’s my conclusion, eh? Grad school is like becoming your own priest? Now that’s brilliant.]

It’s intoxicating. And then I thought about the other things I’ve read [rushed through at the speed of light] over the past few weeks: Plato and Lucretius, a little Shakespeare, Balzac, Stendhal, and really, how amazing is it to read someone like Plato or Lucretius and recognize all of the brilliant people before you who have read him?

Once I had a teacher describe what I was trying to do with an academic paper as “entering the conversation.” And I love that– I think about it all the time. She meant that in writing a paper, I’m not responding to something that happened in class, or something (perhaps) that happened to me—I’m responding to an argument. Like Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble was a move in a long and fascinating game, and I can respond to that—adding to it, changing perspective—and if (if!) my play is good enough, it might become part of the dialogue about that article. Or about my article.

And then I realized that all of this reading and thinking and gnawing over ideas is still being part of the conversation. Right now, I’m the kid in the back of the class who doesn’t have anything to say just yet. Because in the front of the classroom are Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault and Judith Butler and I’m not quite there yet. But I’m in the classroom and I’m in the conversation.

[I’m deeply uncomfortable with how vain that sounds—sitting in the same classroom with the gods of academia—but I think I am. Not because of my brain, but because of my focus (as in what I’m focused on, not my dedication). I think. Note the fragmented thoughts. Thanks, Barthes.]

I set alarms for study breaks, but they almost always come too soon, pulling me out of conversation with the people others quote. And I realize I have just as much “authority” over the text as Foucault, as Halberstam or Butler. As I read Plato, Shakespeare read him too. He’s in the desk next to me. And seriously, how cool is that?

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