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  • The Death of Emerson:Writing, Loss, and Divine Presence
  • J. Heath Atchley

When I cruise the forty-three television channels available to me (and that's basic cable), simultaneously being enchanted and disgusted by much that I see (a kind of Kantian sublime), I cannot help but think that the culture in which I find myself is less articulate than ever. For this situation perhaps the 43rd President of the United States could serve as a useful emblem—a joke that is all too easy to make. But such a diagnosis of the low standard of my culture's literacy might also be too easy to make. For it is the case that America's traditional anti-intellectualism reaches new heights in our current, hypermediated milieu: we now have more venues than ever to disseminate undisciplined, uncreative thought (think, for example, of all the burgeoning blogs). On the other hand, such hypermediation amounts to an explosion of symbolization. Language is everywhere, and hence there is the demand to use it instrumentally well. Again, an image from the U.S. presidency is emblematic. Think of President Clinton's infamous line to the intrepid Independent Counsel: "It depends on what your definition of the word 'is' is." Such a line could represent the pervasive urge to absolutely precise articulation, controlling one's words to an extreme degree. Another emblem could be the common academic paper where a writer has masterfully summarized and explained the words of another thinker, rendering them more accessible but probably not more desirable. One could read this situation dialectically: the moment when concern for the value of language seems lowest is also the moment when the demand for controlling language is highest. Beyond dialectics, however, I take the demand for absolute articulation as a jumping-off point for considering an idea that might appear to have nothing to do with this implicit yet persistent demand—the concept of presence. More specifically, I want to consider how a particular rendering of this concept affects what we might call the divine and its relationship to an ostensibly secular culture, and I also want to consider some lines from Emerson and how they can lead one to think of the divine as presence, a presence that requires an absence, a presence that to some extent is an absence. According to this encounter with Emerson, thinking about the presence and absence of the divine has to do with the way one takes up writing. [End Page 251]

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How this essay itself takes up writing deserves some comment. First of all, the sentences here are intended to participate in the essay's argument rather than be solely vehicles for the delivery of that argument. Such a distinction might seem pedantic or overly refined, but I mean it to imply that the immanent qualities of the words (their sounds, arrangements, shapes, and connections to one another) embody a kind of importance that parallels the importance of a signifying message. Not that philosophy should become literature, but a sharp awareness of its medium can give philosophy a power that pushes beyond the pedantic (something especially warranted in Anglophone academia). This push occurs, at least in part, because words themselves have some agency; that is to say, they are not only the instruments of a writer but also influences upon a writer; as words emerge they shape thinking as it is ongoing, as it moves into new territories of consciousness and reality.

Along such lines, consider also how one can use the words of another thinker. One approach would be to build a consistent and authoritative picture of a thinker from her words. Another would be to allow the words to push one into compelling thoughts that might not otherwise occur, ones that might not even be recognizable by the source of their inspiration (or by oneself or one's own colleagues). I prefer this latter approach (though I am thankful the former exists), because it encourages contemporary philosophy to be moving instead of simply being informative or correct, something that has the potential to strike one dumb in addition to securing one's intelligence.1 Philosophy written in this manner cannot really strive to be...


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pp. 251-265
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