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This issue of JACKET is a co-production with SALT magazine


Lyn Hejinian

Continuing Against Closure


This piece is 1,500 words or about four printed pages long.


SOME YEARS AGO I wrote an essay called “The Rejection of Closure”; it begins with an epigraph that seems as applicable to the remarks I want to make on this occasion as it did to that early essay. The epigraph was taken from Paul Valéry’s Analects and, in the English translation, it says: “Two dangers never cease threatening the world: order and disorder.”
    At base, the essay has a quite elemental argument, which is that we can only know things and indeed only perceive them as things, distinct from one another, by virtue of their differences, and hence on the basis of their details. Quiddity — thinginess or thingitude — consists of the detailed differences that make one thing what it is and not what another thing is. The argument merely restates, as you can see, a very basic tenet of structuralism, which was in turn derived from linguistics and, in particular, Saussure’s observations regarding the ways in which the distinctive features of words provide them with syntactic function and semantic value. A pet and a pot have much in common, but it’s the fact that they have something not in common (i.e., one has an e where the other has an o) that allows us to recognize each and say something with and about either.
    It is only when differences emerge, making differentiation possible, that perception, observation, and making sense can occur. A world in the state of chaos is one that remains closed to us. Chaos, the state of undifferentiated everything, is a state of sameness. It is eventless. It’s swirling doesn’t happen. It is only by virtue of differences, that anything can occur at all.

Reality precedes us. It was here before we were and it will be here after we are gone.
    Although reality, by and large, doesn’t reciprocate our interest in it, our interest in it is very great — it being, after all, all that we have.
    Of course. What reality includes is all that there is. Can we say, then, that reality exhibits closure? that reality is self-contained?
    Like any biologist, we have to answer in the affirmative: “No.”
    It is the fate of logic to undo closure infinitely.
    Fate produces chances. As a result, we are faced with choices. Exercising them leaves containment (including the inner sanctum of romantic introspection) in ruins.
    If one equates fate with what happens, or even with all that happens, one can’t help but realize that one has an improviser’s experience of it.
    Improvisation has to do with being in time. And it has to do with taking one’s chances.
    In fact, one can’t take a chance outside of time; the whole concept of chance puts one inside a temporal framework. Improvisation consists of taking chances, i.e., entering the moment in relation to it — it’s about getting in time, being with it.
    To enter a moment in relation to it, one has to enter it with something. One is having a time with something — something one is in time with.
    That something is something that has come to be, it has occurred. Improvisation begins at the moment when something has just happened, which is to say, it doesn’t begin at the beginning. Nonetheless, it is always involved with the process of beginning — that is, of setting things in motion.
    My intention here is to link fate with incipience, or to suffuse the limiting condition known as fate with the limiting condition known as beginning in such a way as to allow the limits to cancel each other.
    We witness sequiturs without transition and non-sequiturs with them.
    Logic inserts itself everywhere and narrative follows as fast as it can though often it can’t keep up with events since they advance in leaps that leave logicians behind.
    Nonetheless, says the empiricist, anything that isn’t another thing is linked to that other thing by the difference (or differences) between them.
    The empiricist continues: To be linked, related, is to be bound.
    One is bound to whatever comes to one’s consciousness. That is a more or less adequate definition of our relation to fate. What comes to one’s consciousness binds one to one’s fate.
    Differences then, are essential. They are what we all have in common, namely that we never have everything in common with anyone else. But differences have a strange ontological status. They are basic but not, strictly speaking, elemental They exist in and as the details of what is — as features of substantives, rather than as substantives themselves. They are, indeed, instances of insubstantiality, because they mark points of mutability. They keep things susceptible to events, they allow them to participate in what happens. Differences are evidence of incompleteness.
    Of course completeness has a strong appeal. It can provide emotional satisfaction, and even, as in the case of a job well done, material satisfaction. It can be exhilarating to finish a work of art, for example. It can be a relief, having cleaned up after a strained family dinner party, to stand in the relative silence of one’s restored idiosyncratic order and say: “that’s done!” — these are not words of regret.
    And, though there is little evidence of completion and closure to be found in the actual state of things, and though the notion may seem a fiction to an empiricist, still, these fictions can exert cosmic fascination; as theology, even as ideology, they can be compelling. And, though I have termed closure a fiction, the desire for closure can exert real (though in my opinion often disastrous) influence. One sees this for example in relation to contemporary notions of justice.
    We may speak of infinite mercy, but justice exists to keep situations finite. And when it is criminal justice that is under discussion, it is taken as a given that the people involved, especially the “victims,” have “right to closure,” and that that right is incontrovertible, proper, “inalienable.”
    That the bringing about of closure is often impossible to distinguish from an act of vengeance (as in the carrying out of capital punishment) is, apparently, of no consequence. Which makes a certain sense — closure, by definition, establishes the condition of “no consequence.”
    But this means that, if one is committed to consequences (to history, to social responsibility, to the ongoing liveliness of living), one has to be wary, to say the very least, of closure.
    If closure is problematic ethically it is untenable semantically, since nothing can restrain meaning, nothing can contain all the implications, ramifications, nuances, and connotations that cascade and proliferate from any and every point in any and every instance of what is or is thought to be. And nothing can arrest the ever-changing terrain of ubiquitous contexts perpetually affecting these.
    This alone must keep one in a condition that is the very contrary of closed. One must, to begin with, be conscious.
    What has come to be of increasing interest to me over the past few years is not so much consciousness itself but the sites of consciousness. And by sites of consciousness I do not mean heads or brains but places in the world, spaces in which an awakening of consciousness occurs, the spaces in which a self discovers itself as an object among others (and thus, by the way, achieves subjectivity). My notion of these sites of consciousness, these zones of encounter, derives much from Hannah Arendt’s elaboration of what she termed “the space of appearance,” where human and world come into being for and with each other. Arendt’s “space of appearance” bears great similarity, as she points out, to the Greek notion of polis.
    “The polis ... is the organization of the people as it arises out of acting and speaking together, and its true space lies between people living together for this purpose, no matter where they happen to be.... To be deprived of it means to be deprived of reality, which, humanly and politically speaking, is the same as appearance. To men the reality of the world is guaranteed by the presence of others, by its appearing to all — and whatever lacks this appearance comes and passes away like a dream, intimately and exclusively our own but without reality.”
    There is for me one problem with this otherwise beautiful formulation, which is that it denies dreams and other works of the imagination the status of reality. I would argue that one of the functions of art is to bring dreams and other works of the imagination into the space of appearance.
    Reality is that which is, or can be, shared with other human beings, and it is to be found in spaces of appearance, places where things happen, where things do their thinging.
    It is in this context that, though still arguing my case against closure, I can speak in favor of the border, which I would characterize not as a circumscribing margin but as the middle — the intermediary, even interstitial zone that lies between any one country or culture and another, and between any one thing and another.
    It’s a zone of alteration, transmutation, a zone of forced forgetting, of confusion, where laws and languages clash, where currency changes value and value changes currency, and where, bumbling along, everyone is a foreigner, Jane to Sam, wolf to donkey, rhapsodist to infant, pigeon to goose.


Photo of Lyn Hejinian

Lyn Hejinian is a poet, essayist, and translator; she was born in the San Francisco Bay Area and teaches in the English Department at the University of California, Berkeley. Published collections of her writing include My Life, Oxota: A Short Russian Novel, The Cell, The Cold of Poetry, and A Border Comedy (Granary Books). Translations of her work have been published in France, Spain, Japan, Italy, Russia, Sweden, and Finland. From 1976—1984 Hejinian was the editor of Tuumba Press and since 1981 she has been the co-editor (with Barrett Watten) of Poetics Journal.


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This issue of Jacket is a co-production with SALT magazine,
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