Bridging the gap

“Each member of the family in his own cell of consciousness, each making his own patchwork quilt of reality – collecting fragments of experience here, pieces of information there. From the tiny impressions gleaned from one another, they created a sense of belonging and tried to make do with the way they found each other.” 

Toni Morrison (1970/2007), The Bluest Eye, p34.

One of the challenges of working on fragments, and one of the rewards, is the pervasiveness of the concept. Although admittedly I know I am particularly sensitive to the word, and always on the lookout for it – indeed, always searching for scholarship, always seeking editions, and always feverishly taking down notes in my own journals on whatever fragments I find – the term “fragment” seems to appear in everything I read, no matter what it is. As I move outside and around the concept of “classical” fragmentation, which has certain particular and technical definitions (relating to material disintegration as well as textual integration – and a tense interrelationship between the filtering of the “mainstream” and “non-orthodox”), the idea of the fragment appears consistently within discourses of alienation, marginalization, and loneliness. Since the fragment (from Latin frangere – “to break”) presupposes an act of violence (from our historical vantage often invisible violence: we don’t always know how or why something “breaks,” “breaks down,” or “is broken” – although sometimes we do), we use this word of a variety of personal experiences relating to mental environments: memories, emotions, but also internal perception of external realities. 

I am trying to bridge the gap between the ceremony and monumentalizing of ancient thought via fragmentary excerpts, and the broader metaphor of fragmentation which seems to represent so much of human experience. In the passage from Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye quoted above, we find a horizontal model of fragmentation which is different from the verticality of some ancient fragmentary processes (which are: quotations of quotations of quotations – Seneca (Ep. 108.34) quoting Cicero quoting Ennius, for instance). Morrison’s use of “fragment” here relates to partiality: an understanding that there is a totality of experience within each individual which simultaneously indicates the difficulty of conveying that totality – and instead of meeting “eye-to-eye” (as it were – and, indeed, the “bluest eye” represents a gaze that cannot be met), we might meet, instead, at small (and fleeting) moments of convergence. But in that meeting, there is a mutual holding: “they created a sense of belonging and tried to make do with the way they found each other.” And mutuality is fundamental to fragmentary processes: even though the fragment is often packaged as an atomized, isolated phenomenon (buttressed by rhetorics of “loss”), pieces of things come into our hands because they have been held onto: they have not traveled alone (and here we might positively cite: Ennius/Cicero/Seneca). Morrison’s conceptualization of partiality here is actually surprisingly optimistic: partiality is not simply the limits of disclosure (beyond which we “lose” something), but the meeting point. In other words, the fragment is not simply a broken thing, but a node of interconnection. 

* * * 

I haven’t blogged in a long time. And in the interim, some things have changed for me. My book came out. I moved to a new institution. I was tenured. After five years in Boston, I’m back in Los Angeles – where I lived as a graduate student and where I still have deep roots. Inevitably, I find myself meditating upon that time, which in some ways seems so distant (given the massive upheavals which have taken place in the interim: elections, pandemics, disciplinary ruptures) but is now – as I revisit old haunts – also so present. Moments of major change hold within them the opportunity of self-reflection: to shed old habits, and to seek greater self-alignment. When I was a graduate student, I blogged casually and didn’t overthink anything. That’s when I first started to find community on twitter, too. (Although I have a much longer personal relationship with writing and the internet – reaching back to the online forum culture of the mid 2000s.) In major ways, our online communities have changed since I’ve been a part of them – in some ways expanded, but in many ways contracted. Some of our colleagues have kept a consistent blogging practice (and I am particularly inspired by Josh Nudell). But blogging has always been a complicated thing in the context of academic currency, as we are pressured to funnel our intellectual labor into the few sacralized spaces which theoretically increase or safeguard our scholarly authority. At this point in my career, however, I want to think carefully and deeply about where and how I use my own voice. Part of this relates to how I plan my next research projects (how to study the questions and texts which I remain drawn to), and part of this relates to how I convey my thoughts to different kinds of audiences. In sum (with the hopefulness that an intermittent blogger brings to each sporadic blog post), I hope to bring new life to this space – and to rekindle a casual writing practice relating to my scholarly work.

“being an expert on fragments is like being an expert on nothing” 😉