The humble essay, a form of writing allergic to the division of labor and specialization, is the voice of reason. It has come into its own as the preeminent vehicle for thinking clearly in an age of media saturation. No better platform exists for reflection in the “age of information.” The writer readily finds this form the most direct, personal and salient in forming and expressing opinions free from the constraints of the academy with its imperative to publish and the pressures of the press to induce a readership. The essay liberates fixed ideas. It is vital for testing new concepts and tracing novel topoi of human experience. In the essay there is no demand to speak authoritatively or unequivocally. It is an experiment in formal thinking shunning the merely formulaic and bringing weight to germinal ideas while refusing to bind them to systematic thought.
Given the rapid rise and spread of electronic communication the essay is especially valuable today. The “digital space” makes short shrift of what was once arguably a cohesive and literate reading culture. A discerning readership with the right background cannot be relied on even when niche interests are catered for on a global scale. In fact the loss of local, shared traditions of communication, above all a robust literary culture, has meant a less reliable public sphere.
The surfeit of information and “data” makes the discovery of quality writing an onerous task. No “economic incentive” exists for the cultivation of critical judgment. Communities of well-heeled critics control and decide on what counts as scholarship and literature, even what can be classed as literariness. Yet reason is universal. Special interests deny the mission of critical thinking. Were it not for media saturation and the confusion of tongues the modernist essay would have little to recommend it in the postmodern age and beyond.
When it is true to its form the present practice of essay writing can no longer assume a stock of common background knowledge. This very fact, a sign of information overload, underscores the limits of the human capacity for assimilating ideas and makes the essayist a bastion of the vanguard. Especially against the social distinction desperately inculcated through educational institutions. The accumulation of social and cultural capital has never been so determinative of “personal outcomes.”
Yet the developments in reading and writing under technological means of production and distribution work to undermine the very forms of distinction that drive late capitalist culture. Bourdieu’s analyses of social distinction and of the various forms of capital are methodologically apposite for understanding the role of criticism in the cycle of accumulation, including the social mechanisms of postmodern taste that confer power to individuals and groups. The essay provides an opening illuminating all such fields of power.
The new digital forms of writing engage culture at its highest stage of development, that is, at its most technologically sophisticated. The question is, confronted with the power of an omniscient and omnipresent digital media who is not rendered prostrate? The essay inhabits a liminal space between disciplines. Its claims are no longer purely literary, philosophical or scientific. At its most perceptive it escapes the historical markers of social class and prestige. The lax attitude to consistency in the use of technical language and the simplification of complex ideas despite specialization makes the essay form amateurish in the best historical sense of universal and comprehensive. It is the only form amenable to the literary ideal of the public sphere, the “republic of letters.” Here the essay proves its worth as the form of thinking and the vehicle of communication best suited for expression in an age of information.
More than that it has transformed itself in lieu of philosophy’s defunct role as the seat of reason into the mouthpiece for the only coherent and relevant judgments on social and political “issues.” Not establishing new norms but simply supplying much needed reflection. The essay assays comprehensive, not intensive, judgments from the perspective of saturated fields of culture. It synthesizes a picture of utopian prospects from the white noise of clashing worldviews and opinions. It sets up new markers of intellectuality and critical thinking outside the strictures of social distinction imbibed through the various institutions of discipline and control.
That the opportunities for “free expression” are few and far between does not take away from the fact that existing platforms “hosting content” provide ample room for such thinking. Despite general standards being lower than they once were, due in no small measure to substandard editing for lack of money, the existence of such platforms amidst the saturation of information proves the truth of Hegel’s “historical ruse.”
The democratizing effect of the new digital space has often been remarked. The broadening of access to the fruits of the “general intellect,” now including all sections of society, has done much to bring little known ideas to the “masses.” In a way the Internet provides the same service that workers’ schools and institutes did in the early twentieth century. At that time it was socialists who agitated for equal access to “knowledge.” Now it is the digital “labour market”—pushed by new technological venture capital—that wants information disseminated far and wide.
Unfortunately without the ability to discern between interpreted and fictitious facts and ideas, that is, without the intellectual tools for making speedy rather than merely hasty judgments, such a store of knowledge and its retrieval as “sound bites” is counterproductive, even at the level of the system’s economic logic.
The lack of facility with dialectical reasoning and analysis therefore leads to a dull taxonomic rationality. The “news cycle” is now the “information cycle,” a perfect representation of ideological incorporation by the rarified relations of late capitalism. The laws of capitalist reproduction and the levers of competition and advertising dominate the digital world. The habituation of the citizenry to the discipline of consumption, including that of prefabricated ideas, should be called an “administered informatics.” If the hegemonic power of this technological rationality is necessarily dispersed it is nevertheless still focused on the ends of capital accumulation. Power is therefore still bound in its extra-constitutional dimensions to economic interest.
With its multitude of guises the essay sits aloft surveying and pondering the earthly comedy of “innovation” and the growing organic composition of capital. The detachment of the Philosophe has always been the ideal character-trait of the bourgeois free mind. We are all free to express ourselves but not to express the “truth” of unfreedom. That is why writing to write—with no end in sight—is a political act. It promises that autonomy in thought, word and deed denied by society to most of its hired labour.
The pursuit of artistic expression comes with its own difficulties of realization, as Adorno reveals in his Aesthetic Theory. This has to do not only with the historical reception of art but also with the inherent impossibility of resolving the tension between the critical viewer and the work of art. The aesthetic difficulties associated with the post-Cartesian split between subject and object nonetheless hamper the essay as a literary form. But this relation is nowhere near as crucial as in visual or other plastic and conceptual arts.
The free-floating writer pursues art in the knowledge that the mind of “consumer” will always receive her work interestedly, that is, with well-formed prejudices. The humble goal of criticism is therefore out of all proportion to the techno-scientific demands of the academy. The call for a constant stream of “output reports” cannot be “supplied” by a thinking aiming for human “emancipatory interests,” whose vital imperative is philosophically employing universals to illuminate concrete social relations.
The essay is form, form as the culture of the writer. The Greeks called this paideia, enculturation, and the Germans Bildung. The form of the essay is the direct expression of such paideia; it is open, searching, exploratory and critical. The task of thinking includes the effort toward self-cultivation, or care of the self (epimelia tou aftou) as the Ancient philosophers called it. Today this ideal is masked by the ersatz self-development of commercial culture, which borrows from irrational new age religion and business group think in equal measure.
The writer pursues no particular course and withholds mere opinion on the “news of the hour” thereby foreshadowing the overlap between the spirit of history and the spirit of culture. The only way to achieve insight is through abstractions concrete enough to interest the reader. The hallmark of the great writer, as Goethe and Coleridge highlighted, is the ability to discern the universal in the particular and relate the particular to the universal. The dialectical method educes the “concrete particular” out of the totality of social phenomena.
The function of the essay has obviously changed over the course of history. It is a quintessentially modern form even if the Ancients anticipated it. The only duty of the modern essayist is to forego specialization and the magnetic power of “special interests,” to always remain independent as far as she is able in a “connected world.” The essence of critical form depends on this autonomy. It is what makes writing worthwhile. Greatness in literature is not the expression of individuality alone, the principium individuationis of philosophy, but a realized social individuality, the expression of autonomy within social collectivity and unmastered “seriality.”
The mutual self-congratulatory back scratching that afflicts the petit bourgeois “literary world” has had an effect on all contemporary stylistics. A pithy style is favoured over a serpentine one making dialectical thinking difficult if not impossible. (Those analytic thinkers who decry obfuscation will never understand the need for constantly pushing language to its semantic limits in order to adequately describe and confront social change). Those who don’t conform to the anodyne simplicity of Doric writing and speech are relegated to posthumous oblivion. The essay nevertheless retains some of its native autonomy from the market demand to conform to the taste of the hour. The onus is on the writer using her artistic and synthetic powers to bring out the dialectical transformations discernable in the “everyday” and through the ever-widening horizon of late capitalism.
The essay is marked by the elucidation of three things: temporal progression, spatial compression, and the augmentation of consciousness. Its words are the signs of an inscrutable process going on in human cognition and understanding. The dialogue of the self with itself is no simple monologue. It is a bringing into palpable being the tension at the heart of any living society and a throwing into question all given bromides of the commercial sphere. Intentionality purified from the dross of commodity fetishism is hyper aware of regressing to conceptions of organic social being, for example, by conceiving the essence of society as competition, conflict, preservation or individual genius.
Should the essayist condone the philosophy of “overcoming,” or the call for action and commitment? The writer writes to disclose the social unconscious. Those words resonate deepest that bring the remotest corners of the social and political to light. Not to hypostatize one social imaginary over another but to negate the power and spell of pre-given structures of thought and being. Also the essay has always expressed artistic sprezzatura. It is read as if having sprung Athena-like from the writer’s head. The more it is thickly laid this illusion reinforces the saving counter-fetish to the one imposed on society by the spectacle of consumption.
Literary theories cannot get at the heart of the free-style essay whose form is neither instructive, nor clever, nor informative. The essay offers nothing of concrete value to empirical social analysis. It is this aspect of pure value, an alienated value to be sure and of “art for art’s sake,” that best represents and protests the replacement of “use value” by “exchange value,” vindicating the very form of the essay as revolutionary.
The general positive stand of the writer is for autonomy against heteronomy, for individuality against a society of discipline and control, for a pure thinking against the grain. The “crooked timber of humanity” demands dialectical clarity and critical negation. The writer deals directly with the mind’s instruments of personal and social understanding and reasoning.
The essay exists preternaturally as well as being the embodiment of a single mind, that of the solitary author “going it alone” in a complex society. Her voice is not crying alone in the wilderness of an anomic life-world. The writer hones the symptoms of everydayness. Inwardness marks her character as adequate to the object of study. The virtue of this style of thinking and writing is in how it conceives the present, foregrounding the temporal instant as a milestone of history. The spirit emerges as the apotheosis of the everyday.
The reversal of the commercial into the personal, of mediation into immediacy, undermines the epistemology of reification. It bestows relief from the perspectives and thought processes necessary for survival under late capitalism. The reader is not privy to his or her own horizon of interpretation without the intervention of the author’s post-bourgeois subjectivity, since individualism has already rendered the specificity of the subject-object relation suspect. Nevertheless the essay persists with the gravitas of thinking, taking epistemological entailment into the realm of the “commercial” and of common and literary speech.
Too much has been made of speech as “power.” Derrida’s main position has been to place writing, or “ecriture,” at the center of the human “performance” of culture. The essay in this light might be conceived as the forever-delayed expression of its Dasein. The meaning gathered through reflection only makes sense in the context of a staged event of writing in the world empty of its own intrinsic reason and content. But this lesson of the “performativity” of language—of language as the “house of being” as Heidegger expresses it—lacks the historical concretion of meaning-making and semantic rendering accomplished by modern forms of writing. As Lukacs and Adorno have pointed out the essay definitively expresses the epistemological positioning of the modern subject. One can deconstruct language but the social persists nevertheless, as do concrete social and economic relations.
Modern consciousness is born with its expression through the essay. The genealogy of the distinctively modern essay goes back putatively to Francis Bacon and Montaigne. Whatever misgivings one has about the imperialism that accompanies the rise of individualism modern consciousness is indissolubly bound up with the phenomenon of discursive exchange—mimicking economic exchange—and with the rise of narratives of emancipation and freedom. The cool detachment of the writer and burgeoning intellectual leads to the pursuit of augmenting the range of human happiness. The utilitarian quest for the general good is further mitigated by a return to ideas of the good life. In Ancient philosophy can be found the kernel of freedom that results in the appeal to universal suffrage in the writings of the modern philosophers, above all Kant and Hegel. The intellectual imperative to “dare to know” is not different from the directive to “know thyself.” Plato’s dialogues and the Stoic’s practice point to an ethical concern with the individual and “care of the self.”
The point is to answer the question: How is it possible to cultivate and educate the individual in the polis and how far can this ideal be extended to every citizen? Admittedly some authors are more directly political than others. Plato and Aristotle for example are always preferred by critical thought to Hellenistic and Scholastic philosophers. The political is never that far behind the ethical—in the case of Plato the question of justice is always bound up with the question of virtue. Paideia or self-cultivation exploits the “best” of the learning of the past in order to extend the reach of social and political transformation.
The reflective, contemplative attitude is nevertheless privileged. The essay has as its main precursors in the history of thought the vita contemplativa, from Heraclitus to St. Augustine and the mystics of the Middle Ages. But the active pole of this contemplative vocation is the attitude of immersion in the tensions and contradictions of actual life. The vocation of contemplation quickly shifts becoming a quest to “get to the bottom of things.” And it is the hypostatization of the latter attitude that characterizes the scientism of our age. A praxis severed from the contemplative attitude is incapable of new ideas and concepts. There is more at stake than stating the essayist takes both a passive and active role in “daily life.” The modern writer, the littérateur, even the dilettante—all bourgeois ideals in essence—share a vision of writing as act.
The “performance” of writing therefore constitutes an event in the life of the writer. The quantum of energy delivered in this event is immediately transferred to the reader. Other forms of writing, including the novel, lack the energetic immediacy of the essay. They fall short of the exuberance linking the intellectual to the passional, a conjunction of the innermost and outermost life functions. No time exists in the repetition of the singular event of digesting the written or printed word on the pulpy or glassy page. The reader’s participation signals the utter untruth of the reader response theory since how else would the reason shared by writer and reader alike find common ground for agreement or disagreement? It therefore remains to be proved how any theory can hold its own when confronting the essay. In the same way the philosophers once wondered how one could possibly recognize the perception of the eye when one could neither see the mechanism of the perceiving mind nor the eye doing the looking.
The essay is the raison d’etre of all writing in the modern world. Before there was only scripture, commentary and the notary’s scribbling. Before literature there was the marketplace of ideology and the ideology of the marketplace. The internal rhythms and flow of the essay were unknown to the age of Hellenic theatre and also to the age of the Christian lex orandi which intoned outer rhythms only. The reader would not have understood the need to divide the inner from the outer, the psychological subject from the psychoanalytical “real.” The monk’s cell bears witness both to the old prophetic externalization of desire and the new solitary madness on the ascent. The attitude of deep reverence to the logos living in parchment and liturgy culminates in the bathos of “individual expression.”
The essay allows every material and mental phenomenon to come into concourse and conflict. No other literary or artistic form encourages such a broad mending of the rift that separates subject and object internally and externally, temporally and spatially. It is in the chance encounter between objects and their interpenetration that the morphe of matter becomes known to consciousness. The Platonic or Aristotelian “universals,” whether attributes or essences, things or ideals, conceived really or nominally, have no purchase on epistemological, dialectical “truth.” But it is a negative truth that is meant. There is no anamnesis of form but rather the generation and production of the new via repetition and reassemblage. The dialectical view of phenomena, what Benjamin understood as the articulation of “dialectical images” and “constellations,” and Adorno as “negative dialectics,” presses social and other “facts” to the aesthetic technique of the montagist creating a “picture” of the present historical conjuncture.
Consciousness “in-and-for-itself,” which includes an understanding of the development of objectivity or the “spirit of the age,” finds articulation in the form of the essay. Here in fact one finds the performance of the sublation of the split between subject and object. It is a discoursial truth or subjectivity’s rationalizing account of itself and the world. The effect of this recognition and reflexivity on the material world and objecthood ends in a political act, namely revolution. The autonomous development of each thing is at the outset denied by the essay form.
One can speak of dialectical sublation as the essay’s highest virtue, always to be realised. Taking this criticality seriously means engaging the world politically; one reason the essay is implicitly progressive. (Unless, that is, its stated purpose is merely to deploy “information” i.e. as “infotainment”).
To conclude, in its most contemplative mode and stance the essay is a reflection on and refraction of a world. It is a reflection that is always open to new ways of conceiving and understanding “subjective” and “objective” spirit and a refraction of those facets of reified social being, understood as totalizing exchange society. There is no end to the fascination the essayist holds for the world. The essay will always stand in “awe” (thaumazein) at all appearance. It will also stand all pre-given truths on their head. To “essay” is to produce a “clearing” in which the critical faculties are present and alert. This material and mental reflection proves not only the autonomy of the human subject but also the emancipatory potential of all thinking and being in the world.