The familiar and the exceptional

For my father, everything was familiar. He had the vantage point from which he could grasp everything. If new information appeared that contradicted what he said, or someone got emotional and acted out (he called it being ‘primitive’ or ‘hysterical’), it was all part of the same vista. Nothing seemed to surprise him; everything had happened before and if it hadn’t it didn’t matter since it wouldn’t make a dent in the general order of things anyway – plus ça change, the poor will always be with us, etc. He admired easygoing landowners in English costume dramas who knew everyone’s place. His favourite saying was ‘that’s the exception that proves the rule’, and the rule could be as general as he liked, could absorb any event or emotion, could be made to span life itself. Thus he swept his arm across the horizon, familiarized himself with the world and spared himself the need for thought.

By contrast, when I went to university, everything seemed to be about the exception rather than the rule. We were to learn critical thinking, which seemed mainly to involve focusing on marginal subjects: the margins of traditional academic disciplines and canons, of history and language, even of thought itself. It was the focus on the marginal that was thought to give critical thinking its subversive force.

We learned, first, that meaning was constructed and deferred along contingent and fluid chains of signs, and that any statement about general rules had to be put in quotation marks and examined for its underlying preconceptions. We learned that there was no ‘closure’. We learned to be suspicious of the ‘metaphysics of presence’ and focus on what was excluded in its hierarchies of concepts. We read dense texts we barely understood. We searched for, wrote and talked about neglected artists and writers and thinkers, about othering and aporias, about the abject and the liminal, and so on in an endless critical mill. It felt transgressive to use this new language of critique. We were deconstructing all oppressive essentialisms, even the notion of the stable ‘subject’ itself, the ability to say ‘I’!

I absorbed the unwritten rules of critical thinking very easily since there was nothing very solid in me to resist them. I made sure to use the latest buzzwords and subject my own arguments to the same suspicion I directed at my subject matter, to the point where I wasn’t saying much at all. In the end, I remember, I saw writing essays as more of an aesthetic exercise than an intellectual one. I did what I needed to get good grades.

By constantly re-examining the conditions and limits of thought, critical thinking seemed to lose its critical force. In the end it didn’t have much more to offer than revisions of the jargon of the marginal and sceptical interrogations of texts that dared to express real views and emotions.
By substituting the forms of thought for any sustaining content of thought (and what could that possibly mean for us?), our studies were preparing us perfectly for what was already happening in the ‘real’ world, where capital was at work erasing the borders between the centre and the margins without our help, bringing the outside in and the inside out. Our minds were being prepared for what we’d soon be fully thrown into. For in the ‘real’ world the exceptional could no longer be used effectively to break down anything, since everything was already breaking down. In this new world capital was putting its best people on co-opting the exceptional in every possible way, from using avantgarde art in ads to tapping into minority markets. The exceptional was becoming absorbed into the norm and the norm was to become absorbed, not into my father’s rule, but into dispersal and precarity.

So in a sense my father’s laissez-faire attitude had now become appropriate to these new times in a way he hadn’t imagined: nothing means much, nothing makes a difference, it’s all the same anyway…


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