Language is a funny thing. Take my epigraph, for example: three words from the fourth paragraph of Frequencies’ project statement. I find these three words interesting—worth re-reading, even un-reading, rather than just reading—because of the contradiction that they carry along with them; for they unsay what it is that we think they just said.
Like I said, language is a funny thing.
To begin this project of un-reading, I start offstage, before the meaning takes place, and note that the removal of these words from a larger context is signaled by those three dots which, when read as a unit, indicate that something is not just passively missing but omitted (as its Greek root, ἔλλειψις , makes plain)—i.e., this notation leaves a trace of the agency, the choice, of the one who has done the extraction. For, much like the verbs “remove” or “omit,” it makes evident that a strategic operation has taken place; what’s more, the 66s and 99s that frame the text inform readers that the removal had surgical precision, for they allow them to conclude that this is precisely how it is in the absent original—“Go, find it, and compare for yourself,” they challenge. “But see here now?” they simultaneously ask, “Something new is happening, right before your eyes.”
Ellipsis and quotation marks—marks by which writers make admissions to readers (akin to Bruce Lincoln’s sense, in the epilogue to his Theorizing Myth, of how footnotes “show your work”) and by which readers are reminded that writers fabricate their texts (they don’t just happen by themselves, after all), doing so by inserting their own uninvited interests into other people’s prior situations, making texts of other contexts, thereby interrupting someone else’s work and putting to new use just this one piece of a past. And it is precisely by such an interruption that meaning is created—“This here thing is related to that thing there, but they are not the same.” Texts re-signified by their extraction from there and their insertion here; old contexts erased (yet hinted at). Nothing stands alone, unaccountable.
Our punctuation marks mark our punctuations.
When I consider the form of the text above, that’s what I come up with. This structure, evidenced but also produced by the punctuation, makes the text’s history profoundly apparent, the specified limits and the edges are there to see, and the manner in which meaning-making takes place—as a staged series of past and present relationships among interchangeable parts—remains. “I am doing something here,” these marks say, in the voice of the writer, “Watch closely.” Because of the punctuation (in both senses of the term: a marking and an interruption), the reader can’t erase the agency of the writer—the historically-situated chooser, Roland Barthes’s scriptor, the one who has set the table for the reader—any more than readers can erase the sign that there was once another place setting at which these words and other readers once sat next to each other, accompanied by no trailing dots, framed by no 66s and 99s. Yet the original is hardly original, of course, for it made reference to, deferred to, its own absent ancestors. Turtles—texts/contexts—all the way down.
* * *
But let’s begin again and ask what happens if I read, instead of un-read, those words—i.e., take for granted the setting in which this language game is played, authorize its rules as inevitable and natural, thereby seeing (or better, not seeing) the spot at which I, as a reader, have been seated as invisible and limitless: Then what do I make of these three words? What if I see them as having no context? What if I drop my attention to the work being done by the quotation marks and ellipsis and, instead, hear the words speak directly to me, much like being captivated by the wit of the dummy instead of the person so successfully throwing the voice? Well, now there apparently is a thing, an “it” we’ll call it, that, like that animated dummy, has an agency of its own (for, we are told, it resists classification); by means of its own huffing and puffing, the absent signifier that goes by its pronoun defies being classed, has no context, and cannot be controlled. Its rugged individualism prevents anything from getting not just too close but close at all, with no one and no thing occupying a neighboring space.
“I can’t quite put it into words” presupposes just such an it, haunting our dreams before language gives it shape.
But if knowledge is said to be the result of the way we organize the world, the way we group things together to arrive at our judgments of similar or different, more or less, near or far—Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species—then this dearly distant Cousin It remains forever aloof, all covered in hair and a hat, infinitely removed, and thus an utterly unknowable mystery—just as the vague pronoun-of-a-name suggests. After all, “the rejection of classificatory interest is, at the same time, a rejection of thought” (as Jonathan Z. Smith reminds us in the concluding sentence to his essay “Classification” in The Guide to the Study of Religion).
One reader but two readings of a project statement (though one is an un-reading, really): one results in the trace of history, while the other is shrouded in mystery. But only one is good to think with.
* * *
So just what is Frequencies about then? At the level of reading, its task is to document something that defies knowledge—“spirituality” being the noun formerly known as it. The object of this online archive therefore defies language, since language is nothing but classed specificity—for good or ill, a rock is not a pebble, neither is it a stone and hardly a boulder. For whatever reason, these things matter to us and the way we sort the matter that matters is found in the specifics of language. “Over there” is the unspecified region where we ask someone to put—we wouldn’t even say “place,” since we don’t much care—something of little or no consequence. But an item that defies placement, defies relationships of similarity or difference inasmuch as it apparently occupies (of its own volition) a class of its own, is in a space where there are no relations and thus no consequences—a space beyond all places we could possibly set at all dining tables in all possible worlds. It is a space of fantasy, outside of history and thus apart from language (whatever sense it makes to phrase a claim like that within language and within this historical moment; like I said, language is a funny thing).
What is clear is that the results of my reading and un-reading are rather uneasy partners. For on the one hand, we have framed three words and three dots that show the work, that stand for the happenstance, always changing relationship between text and context, writer and reader—how each are always the other too. Meaning historicized. No text stands alone. Yet on the other, we have three words, alone, referring to no writer, no reader, but to the absent, incomparable noun that apparently moves under its own steam. A stand-alone text. Sui generis religion by another name.
A contradiction presents itself (or is presented by another?).
For when the reading is judged from the vantage point of the un-reading—and meaning historicized, I would argue, is the only vantage point to be had for those who name themselves historians—then the writer of the project statement (for there is always a writer, right?) is implicated in an effort to hide footprints, to sweep clear the evidence, and to leave the scene of the accidents of history. For, much like the passive voice, having set the reader’s table with the words of his or her choosing, such a writer then makes a dash for the exit, erasing all evidence of the choices he or she has made, leaving the reader to assume that the table was set by itself. And thus we arrive at a situation comparable to the old dine and dash, a situation where our choices appear free of cost—but only if we get away with it.
Three words—“It resists classification”—followed either by three dots or a dash. Between these two options we have a contradiction in styles at the very heart of Frequencies. Is our object of study incomparable or infinitely comparable?
* * *
To be fair, the entire paragraph (one of six, in fact) from which I excised those three words that became my epigraph reads as follows:
Frequencies seeks to commence a genealogy of spirituality. This project approaches spirituality as a cultural technology, as a diverse reverberation, as a frequency in the ether of experience. We begin in a moment when novelists wonder about the divine, psychological counselors advertise as spiritual advisers, and scholars seek to capture spirituality’s ephemeral nature through survey research. Spirituality abounds, even as it is unclear what it is. Whatever it is, it seems hard to capture. Spirituality takes hold beneath the skin and permeates below the radar of statistical surveys. It resists classification even as it classifies its evaluators and its believers as subjects of its sway. Frequencies will focus this profusion into an epic anthology of wide-ranging analysis.
A genealogy of the discursive object “spirituality” is, for me, far different from a genealogy of spirituality—they cannot sit easily beside each other, at the same table. Suggesting that claims of spirituality, in fact the very use of the term itself, is a cultural technology—a technique, used by someone, a technician perhaps, that does something within culture, within history, I gather—is far from seeing spirituality itself as such a technology. But reading the paragraph I am unsure which we are talking about. I fear that what the site might understand as a productive ambiguity, capable of attracting a multiplicity of views, or layers (to stick with the notion of genealogy), is, for me, a paralyzing cacophony. The trouble? In genealogy the pronouns and the nouns alike—things like justice or marriage or gender or civility or self—refer back to historical practices, habits, institutions, ways of organizing, and the agents who made (and, yes, were made by) these contingent structures. Yet in this paragraph, the source of the Nile too often seems to be the ungenealogized—the un-un-read—noun spirituality; like a rumored and alluring Big Foot marching through the woods, looking back at us, coming in and out of focus, the fabricated object is our target, and not the situated discourse that brought us to the edge of the woods and made us look.
And so, reading that project statement, staring at all those trees, those posts, and thereby missing the structure that the un-reading sees as managing the profusion, visitors to the site likely assume that all of Frequencies’ parts naturally and comfortably fit together—a searchable crazy quilt whose busy mosaic hints at a transcendent whole that’s bigger and thus more significant than the sum of its parts. Only in this way would we assume that (to name but three entries) Martin Marty’s interest in the “most sustaining and inspiring elements of what we can call post-modern spirituality…” and Lee Gilmore’s use of language to point toward some unspeakable thing (“that mysterious ‘more’—an ineffable sense of something larger than ourselves”) could somehow inhabit the same space as Gabriel Levy’s entry, in which Frequencies’ main noun appears in ironic quotation marks and, dare I say, reduced to waves. Only by occupying some god’s eye vantage point, where the omniscient narrator sees into the hearts of all those blind monks, groping around that poor elephant, would we think that these three entries had something in common—instead of seeing the former two as data for the third. To rephrase: that we would likely never assume that assorted mediations and lamentations on, say, this or that sense of justice, would appear side-by-side with a genealogical analysis of the discourse on justice itself, yet freely assume such a comfortable fit when it comes to this thing called spirituality is, I think, the problem that requires attention. For, with my earlier reading and un-reading in mind, “a digital compendium in which the ideals of spiritual self-expression and individual flourishing are held in tension with the historicity of those conceits”—to quote from the opening to the project statement’s fifth paragraph—is one where the tension is so great as to shatter the archive itself. After all, a house divided against itself cannot stand.
Three words. Three dots. Three examples.
A dash. A tension. A contradiction.
Three dots and a dash is, of course, Morse code for the letter V, and V—as every Beethoven fan knows, as does any World War II history buff—also stands for Victory; to have it both ways, to hold both a reading and an un-reading in the space of one epic anthology, would indeed be a victory—a victory over making choices and living with consequences, a victory over History, even Death (“Where is thy sting now, eh? For this very critique will be posted at the same site as its object!”). But the historian in me can’t imagine such a totalized scenario, in which we can have our cake and critique it too—leaving a trace of agency and choice while simultaneously obscuring both. No, we have to choose, and live with the consequences.
* * *
“Scott for gods sake write and write truly no matter who or what it hurts but do not make these silly compromises.”—Ernest Hemingway to F. Scott Fitzgerald (May 28, 1934)
Victory for those unwilling to compromise, those with an eye toward the situation, cognizant of the inevitability of choice, aware that “ineffable” is a word like any other and that “the big picture” is every little picture’s fantasy, is therefore not three dots and a dash; instead, it’s three dots or a dash—either we live with the historicity or make a mad dash off the stage of context, of consequence, of accountability. That’s the choice—between the satisfying (but false) closure of Beethoven’s long fourth note or the utter indeterminacy (and thus possibility) of his first three—his three dots, his ellipsis—followed by not just a rest or a pause, but a silence of who knows what length…
leaving us not sure whether to applaud or…