I have always been intrigued by the epistemological limitations of the knowledge that I, as a young scholar trained in literary and cultural studies, produce in an ambitious attempt to elucidate some of the world’s greatest mysteries. For what purpose have we been born? What are we supposed to do with the time that has been given to us? What is the role of art in this?
It goes without saying that my scholarly practice seems rather futile in light of these grand existential questions. Knowledge formations, especially in the humanities, are inherently tied to the boundaries of language. As has been perceptively pointed out by Friedrich Nietzsche, language maintains a distanced or ‘metaphorical,’ rather than a close or non-mediated, relationship with the world. But just because language will never provide us full access to the thing-in-itself, this does not mean that we cannot employ it in a critical and medium-reflective way.
Long before the cultural branch of performative writing sought to blur the lines between artwork and its critical discourse, the early modern philosopher Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) perceived his world as a ‘performance.’ Les Essais, the title of his 1580 magnum opus, aptly captivates the explorative nature of this undertaking. Derived from the French essayer, meaning ‘to test’ or ‘to try,’ Montaigne’s essays ‘perform’ the very act of meaning-making in language. They put on display the essential polyphony of thought—i.e. its tentative, unstable, and sometimes contradictory nature—in order to scrutinize the constructed character of knowledge.
What do we want to know and how can we know it? For me, Montaigne and his followers (we may think of Roland Barthes or Jacques Derrida in the twentieth century) demonstrated the power as well as the weakness of verbal currency. The medium of the essay offers its user exactly that: a platform for exploring the capacity of language to capture the world and its mysteries in words.
Montaigne, Michel de. The Complete Essays [Les Essais]. Transl. M.A. Screech.