What Is It?
From the Series: Bateson Book Forum: The Resonance of Unseen Things
It is something ineffable and yet spoken, something unknown and yet seen, something forever absent and yet endlessly present. It is something shifting, something displaced, something that floats just beyond purview. It is something that disrupts the ordinary, that surges through the mundane, that resonates across symbolic orders and yet never quite fixes itself, never quite finds its point of coherence and consistency. Yet it resonates nonetheless. It intersects signs. It joins the dots. Even if only for a moment. It joins something. Someone joins something. Somehow. Somewhere.
It is a being that has previously been uttered, seen, heard, or grasped, or that is yet to be. It is a being that resides in, through, and with another sign. It is deferred, but still present. Its trace is still felt.
Everything points to the fact that something is wrong, and yet there is nothing we can do about it. We cannot even fully recognize it.
It is a source of unspeakable power. At least, unspeakable in the narratives of common sense. Its force emerges precisely from its fleeting presence, its continual absence, its not-quite-yet and almost-there.
It is a void. Not in the sense of some nothingness that is desolate and empty, nor of some terrifying source of despair resting below the surface of things. But more in the sense of an endless series of deferrals and displacements, an endless haunting of other signs, other meanings, other narratives, places, and things. It is a void that has positive being. A void that fuels an endless questioning.
What is it? How does this it, this forever absent something, express itself poetically and politically? What is its modality of poiesis, in the sense of a creative standing forth and coming into being? What is the polis that it shapes and addresses? How do we articulate something inherently unknown, something beyond language or knowledge? Something that nevertheless appears to exert a huge force upon life. Something that, somehow, seems to be pulling the strings. Is there a puppetmaster? Who is it? How do we talk about a lack anxiously shifting at the center of collective being? The not quite here, but nevertheless here in the force it effects on us? Where is the center? What is behind the curtain?
* * *
They are part of it.
They are in on it.
What if what is behind the curtain is the curtain itself? What if it is nothing, creative void? What if the curtain is lacking and this lack is itself the curtain?
This they is in on the lack. This they is the lack because it can never settle, never arrive. The symbolic order never appears as complete, never presents itself to us, and yet it forms us. This they is us. It is that very lack that constitutes us. The other that addresses itself to us and to which we address ourselves. This they-self cannot reside in a-self. And yet it constrains and liberates each being. Forms symbolic orders. Forms worlds. Captures and frees. Limits and opens.
This they is an ineffable source of power. An unapproachable, overwhelming, inconceivable force of constraint and liberation that propels people, places, and things through a dialectic of abduction and freedom. It is vast. Too vast.
Who this other is, this other behind the curtain or constituting it below the surface, always just out of sight, cannot be clear. What is clear is that they are other. Yet their otherness is mediated through all kinds of deeply intimate encounters. Encounters that form the most personal memories, the most personal experiences, feelings, and traumas. It is an-other that resides at the very center of self. An-other that dwells deep within self. An absent center. A positive nothing. An unfinishable core of social being.
Power itself is uncanny. The power of hospital lighting. Of bright white walls and bright white lights. Of the spatial structuring of prison. Of geometric structures that form emergent patterns. Of displaced surveillance. The power of the absent specter. The force of ambiguity. The paralysis of unknown constraint. The inability to act in spite of consciousness. The endless sensation of captivity. The double-bind of sleep paralysis: total inefficacy combined with partial awareness.
It has been seen. And yet it remains hidden. It remains lacking. The other side of the sign is never quite reached. What the index pointed to disappears from sight as soon as one looks. What the icon appeared to be no longer appears the same. What the symbol was associated with seems to shift, slip, and slide. And yet its force is still felt, its power still reverberates, its absent being continues to persist.
What it is is real. There’s no doubt about that. That wasn’t even up for questioning. What it is is real in the sense of a surging, uncontainable force that disrupts seemingly stable symbolic orders, that pushes them into new, unknown, and unsettling realities. But not only that. It is real in other ways, ineffable ways, ways which can never fully be accounted for, but which nevertheless find vocalization in layered poetics. For is there not always an element of poetics that is the art of saying the unsayable, of uttering the unutterable? What would poetics be if what it referred to were in plain sight?
Power is itself uncanny. It is uncanny because it resides deep within us and yet manifests itself as an external constraint. Because its source is never quite located, and yet it feels so familiar, even familial. Because we feel it and don’t quite know it. Because its void, its lack, its nothingness, manifests positively. An eternally displaced core constitutes the limits of social being. And as soon as it is constituted, it is displaced once again. As soon as it is constrained, it is liberated.
* * *
Something went wrong. Something is going wrong. Something is going to go wrong. And there is nothing we can do about it.
There is nothing we can do about it, because it cannot be solved. It is itself an ecstatic real. A real that pushes us beyond ourselves. A real that haunts us. A real that motivates. A real that always returns and yet was never entirely absent. A real that cuts across symbolic orders and discourses powerfully, unpredictably, unexpectedly. A real that is uncanny in its power and a power that is itself uncanny.