Essayism at the dusk of catastrophe

Essayism at the dusk of catastrophe

“The essay is the strictest form attainable in an area where one cannot work precisely” – Robert Musil

Thijs Witty | Despite a long and varied history, rooted in sixteenth-century France via the writings of Michel de Montaigne, essays are usually associated with highly derivative activities: school assignments, newspaper commentaries, or other standardised modes of opinionated thinking. From its inception, the essay has however appeared in numerous permutations, inhabiting virtually every discourse and material expression available. The essay tests the notion of genre, merges disciplines by conflating art, philosophy and science, and continuously revises its systems of logic by experimenting with stylistic and rhetorical codes.

The essay as a form incessantly undoes and resets the range of subjectivity, judgment and truth within the complexity of experience. But then there are those experiences that inscribe a limit on possible subjectivity: the traumatic, the sublime, the impossible, the ecstatic. These and other limit-experiences can be so severe that they tear the linguistic subject from itself, leaving the “I” in a state of frayage. Such fraying is generally deemed to render all genres of expression incapable of repairing or restoring subjectivity. Whilst the relative possibility of aesthetics, politics and ethics in relation to limit-experience has been widely questioned in theology, criticism, psychoanalysis, and philosophy, very few studies exist on its form of expression. The dyad I propose as a departure point in this troubling negotiation of subjectivity is that of essayism and limit-experience.

My dissertation project implies a wide variety of knots between limit-experience and essayism. This is partly motivated by a peculiar dialectic: prevailing conceptions of the essay (both as a distinct intellectual form and type of personal expression) have praised its continuous self-questioning, openness, and intellectual indecisiveness, while key studies in the phenomenology and hermeneutics of limit-experience inversely consider similar or sometimes even identical attributes as main impediments in the struggle with frayed ipseity. It is the task of this research to test the troubling co-constitution of frayed ipseity between limit-experience and essayism. By taking a comparative approach, the study brings together relevant case studies in both literature and visual arts, handling the research through the practice of cultural analysis.