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The danger of speaking from somewhere

We all speak from somewhere, right?  It’s not enough to speak.  Speech must be located; it must be named in terms of its historical, social, geographical, biographical, institutional, etc. location.  Among academics in the humanities, this has become a moral necessity.  To locate one’s words is to avoid the dangerous pretense of universality.  Even when I say “I,” for instance, I’ve got to be cautious about the history and the context of this utterance.  Perhaps I must, in order to be responsible, have some knowledge of Descartes in mind.  But this is just another way of saying that identity–expressed in terms of a manifold location–is at a high premium.  We’ve got to have our identities ready-at-hand, in order to be able to specify, as we ought, where we are coming from.  All of the prospects of dialogue and cross-cultural exchange seem to depend on it.

But who are we, really?  Who am I?  Have we forgotten the importance of continually asking this question?  My concern is that, in hopes of avoiding absolutisms and encouraging a deeper respect for the other in a plural world–goals which I emphatically endorse–we will lose a sense of the fundamental incompleteness, strangeness, and malleability which lies at the root of human existence.  Identifying some factors that have contributed to my current sense of self, and even perhaps to the modern genealogy of the “self” which conditions this exercise, seems necessary, as I have said.  But it’s also dangerous.  All too quickly, the responsible act of “locating” falls prey to various sorts of determinism and banality.  Conversations go nowhere because everyone has convinced themselves, beforehand, that they really know wherefrom they are speaking.  Discourse becomes the mere playing out of roles which are assigned according to a set of possible or likely identity-markers.  Where’s the future in this?  Where’s the possibility of deepening our wisdom regarding the greatest mysteries of human life?  Where’s the hope of venturing, together, into hitherto unexplored terrain? 

An overly located humanity has no new frontiers.

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