My head was buried in the page-an omen. As my eyes scanned each line, laboring to understand, my body was laboring to stay afloat. “Maybe I’m hungry,” I thought. “Perhaps it’s the caffeine?” I could sense that my equilibrium was off, but I continued to ignore the signal, expecting, hoping that the feeling would subside. But it spread. I decided to stand, and immediately I knew something was wrong. The slow movement of physical malaise had enveloped me in a wash. The stability of my perception was evanescent, lapsing to a point of hot heat and frantic concern. “What’s wrong with me?” I began to shake violently. “This is bad.” Knowing that I was taking a chance, I left the library.
After taking a few steps outside, I knew immediately that I was in no condition to make the thirty minute trek home. I called a friend, fortuitously close by, and began walking in the direction of her apartment. The shaking was getting worse; all the violence of a fever delirium without the heat, only a sharp cold. “Is this it?” What a thought to have. But the intensity of my physical state suggested that this was not an entirely inappropriate question. I finally made it to the porch of my friend’s apartment. Waiting for her arrival was like waiting for no one and expecting someone.
After resting in her house for twenty minutes to no avail, we decided to go to the hospital’s “prompt care”-somewhere between a doctor’s office and an emergency room. We started driving; I was still shaking. And the thought beckoned again, “could this be it?” Then, approaching the hospital, I could feel my shaking begin to wane, somehow both suddenly and gradually. I was regaining control over my body. Energy seemed to leave through my legs and out my feet. I finally had control over myself again.
Aside from the shock, I had stopped shaking upon arrival at the pseudo emergency room. When I finally saw the doctor, he seemed baffled. He tested me, questioned me, and thought only to the point of impasse. He had no answers; apparently I was fine. But I needed answers, I thought. What had caused this violent rupture? What had inhabited my body? Where did it retreat to? The disconcerting desire to know ran nearly apace with my relief. But what did I want to know? Why did I need to know it?
Perhaps I was being dramatic (I’m writing this in what is presumably good health). But I had come to realize that in my relief I had only arrived back at a place of precarity, a place I now had a different appreciation for. The intensity with which I desired an answer from the doctor, an explanation for my “episode,” brought to my awareness the distance from my tremulous state of twenty minutes prior: I had returned to thinking, rationalizing, calculatingly obsessing, back from a place disconcertingly liberated from this conscious sense of control I now inhabited once again. In my relief was a strong awareness of my finitude, though not through the fitful thoughts of death amidst my uncontrollable shaking, the thought that this might be “it,” but in my assuredness that in fact “it” was not. Because I was now free again to use concepts, make claims, seek agreement and acknowledgment, all that we do to stay afloat, to stay in control.
In using concepts, making claims and coming to rational conclusions, in short, using language, we are reminded of the precarious nature of the self, the longing for acknowledgment it derives from, the responsibility to which it binds us. Finding the rational and emotional language(s) to make connections with others requires such responsibility and precarity; in our linguistic connections and misunderstandings, our lives are endowed with the greatest joys and the profoundest sorrows. Stanley Cavell describes this state of human beings as the lived truth of the skepticism of other minds, the tragedy of our epistemology. And Kierkegaard referred to this state as the foundation for a potentially ironic existence: maintaining skepticism of what it means to be a human self, while only being able to acknowledge such skepticism through the pretense of our claims on the world, our concepts and orderings.
Maintaining skepticism of what it means to be a human being, understanding the delicate nature of our communication with and acknowledgment of others, attunes us to our mortality, and in turn, to those around us. Such attunement should make us more humane-the self becomes an ongoing project. But this individual and collective project is being lost to the imperative of production and multiplication, the nexus of modern capitalism and hubris. The tragedy of our epistemology, itself the foundation of meaningful human interaction, is paradoxically being replaced by a skepticism of death, manifested in our obsession with constant communication, ease, and information. The truth of our skepticism can only be affirmed by the other, by communities and individuals. But we’ve resigned ourselves to more concepts, more control.
While the desire for control may be endemic to humans as language users, this desire has taken on an insidious guise in our proliferating, multiplying concepts and referents. Like the Protestant working to ward off damnation, we look to screens in our pockets to seek a world always removed from the present, seeking self-definition and control everywhere but the present. But no longer are we stifled by our Protestant ethic or false consciousness. Instead, we do nothing but produce: more products, commensurate with more information, all signifiers to keep the truth of skepticism at bay. In so doing we produce, we exploit, we dominate in the name of a “better,” more enlightened self; in the name of “buy now;” in the name of the Facebook “like.” Our concepts, our desire for more exists in the perpetual search for online friends, the increasing means to which we go to secure the comforts of the middle class nuclear family, in the fragmentation of scholarship, the “lonely crowd” we treat as a historical anachronism.
The proliferation of these concepts at work, at school, in the digital world, has no doubt made us more tolerant, in many ways more humane. But despite our professed dedication to difference and multiplicity, to more nuanced understandings, we lose ourselves in such profession by reducing the human person to easily reified essences instead of fluid conversations. In our attempts to manage our lives through the concepts of digital communication, we all become human resource managers providing palliatives to ourselves, ignoring the truth of our skepticism. And as these palliatives for self-management multiply, their unchecked proliferation paradoxically expands the range of the self by reducing her essence to multiplying referents of identity, floating as do our digital selves while we grasp at them feverishly, like balloons inevitably flying away, attempting to control that which we cannot.
Thankfully, as it turns out, my “episode” was not “it.” But because it was not “it,” my attendant relief and return to form was a return to precarity, the skepticism of a self forced to use language. Such skepticism should be liberating: it affirms our desire for connection with others, our need for expression and attunement. For Kierkegaard, it could be a spur to human excellence. But whatever human excellence means, it now appears increasingly unintelligible as we indulge the anxious side of skepticism more and more, longing for the dictates of concepts of control.