I’m about to take my comprehensive exams at NYU’s Department of Performance Studies. In an effort to pry open a little crack in the often strangely sealed academic institution, I threw a DINNER EXAM/EXAM DINNER party for friends who weren’t currently enrolled in school.
Here’s a little toast I read to start the evening off:
In some ways this is a gathering in the name of knowledge. But let me start with a story: I was in a coffee shop yesterday and there were people behind me having a properly intellectual discussion. In many ways, what was happening between them was an actualization of an ideal, a fulfillment of a long standing wish—they were each intelligent and articulate, taking turns to speak and listen; they were a diverse group of strangers who had happened to sit at a table together and spontaneously started talking; they were discussing the urgent issues of our times and dwelling in disagreement rather than succumbing to facile consensus…apparently civil discourse is alive and well ladies and gentleman!—and yet, I haaaaated them. There was a sense, not necessarily in the content of what they were saying but in the textures and rhythms of how it was spoken, that reeked of certitude, of knowing for sure. I’ve come to recognize my own aversion to that smell. This is perhaps strange—I’m in a PhD program, I’ve invited my friends to my house to deliver mini-lectures, etc. Yet I don’t want to become the subject that knows, the subject that will tell you how it all went down and will go down. I want to be the subject that wonders, that has a feeling, an inclination that isn’t quite thought through but is structuring and putting pressure on action. I want to be the subject who goes and reads a bunch and recommends books to people.
It is in this relation to knowledge that I gather you all here tonight. It is a domain of knowledge that allows for indeterminacy, for not knowing in advance, for what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick calls in The Epistemology of the Closet, “non-algorithmic thought” (39), a type of thinking that eschews the “dangerous consensus of knowingness about the genuinely unknown” (45). It is a type of knowledge that can remain not quite articulated—senses, suspicions, leanings. Psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas calls one realm of this sort of knowing the unthought known: a dimension of the “psyche that lives in the wordless world” (3) where one can “imagine an idea without, as it were, knowing exactly what [one] mean[s]” (10). So I offer this gathering in knowledge not in the name of mastery, not as a mode of regulation, or a consolidation of power over a domain. Instead I offer this knowledge in a spirit of generosity, as a gift, a sharing out. To borrow from Fred Moten, borrowing from Pistol at the end of Henry V, “to the university I’ll steal, and there I’ll steal.” I offer tonight as a robbery from the university, stolen knowledge moving on its own accord. Knowledge as a sharing without need for reciprocity or pay back, without amassing any credit. Knowledge that feels a lot like an excited sort of ignorance. A sharing that is a generous kind of narcissism, that assumes no need or desire on your part, a teaching myself with you all.