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Thursday, January 19, 2012

Excursus on Excursuses

Physicians collect “clinical pearls” to make sense of complex medical phenomena. These are usually empirical, time-tested observations about patients, such as “Feed cold, starve a fever.” In psychiatry, there is an instructive distinction between the circumstantial and tangential historian (meaning the patient as narrator of his own story). The circumstantial historian talks round and round a point but eventually makes his way to the mark, whereas the tangential historian continues veering off the point so that it is hard to grasp where he started or to see where he is going. Circumstantiality is taken to be a symptom of obsessionality, while tangentiality suggests a psychotic process. Both styles are digressive; both of them distract us from the history we wish to get from the patient. And it is also true that they tell a story in and of themselves.

The opening pages of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy are a knowing gesture by the narrator who constantly intrudes into the text with a kind of delaying tactic that builds tension almost to the breaking point. The first-person narrator of this 18th century novel brings us to the scene of his procreation and delays the crucial moment with a series of descriptions, deviations and divagations that are not only comical but also make the point that it was these very delays that created an imbalance in the actual composition of his being. In digressing and taking excursions into other matters, the narrator artfully captures our attention and frustrates our wish to know more, making us delightfully aware of the narrator’s character and the contingency and necessity of certain facts of life. Simultaneously. We precisely come into contact with the character’s obsessionality—and our own. And we are left with the maddening experience of tangentiality—Are we going mad? Will he ever get to the point? How was such a creature ever conceived?—until we relinquish the need to control the narrative and abandon ourselves to its vagaries and pleasures. The character of Tristram Shandy is nothing if not a very digressive narrator and the text is composed entirely of picaresque excursions which in fact prove to be the substance of the story. 

The excursus is just this sort of digression in an academic text. It is somewhere between the high-brow scholium or scholion (from Greek σχόλιον “comment”, “interpretation” which couldn’t have a better academic pedigree than Spinoza’s scholia in his Ethics) and the low-brow vulgarizations or marginalia written by students. The most famous mathematical marginal note – Fermat’s last theorem –  was discovered by his son in the margins of his father’s edition of Diophantus, the Alexandrian mathematician, with the comment that the margin was too small to contain the proof.

An excursus from the main text is an aside, a diversion, a divagation, an excursion; let’s call it a deviation, a day-trip on a longer journey. (We can call it a parenthesis.)

The word comes from the Latin, excurrere, “to run out,” and has at least two somewhat opposing countercurrents in contemporary academic usage:

(a)   A “lighter” digression, almost a diversion from the main text in order not to distract from the main argument versus a separate section or appendix to comment more “seriously” on a particular point or deepen the argument of the text.

(b)  On one hand, the excursus in embedded in the main text (not written in the margin as an afterthought, relegated like a subaltern to the foot of the page or an endnote appended like a second class citizen sent to the back of the bus); on the other hand, its function is to unpack the meanings of the text.

My own first encounter with the excursus was in Brigitte Berger and Peter Berger’s The War Over the Family (1984), a work of advocacy, where it is employed to highlight the polemics over the politics and sociology of the family. Jürgen Habermas also employs excursuses (the English plural; not “excursi,” if we followed the Latin) in his masterful overview, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity (1987).

Giorgio Agamben’s Infancy and History: On the Destruction of Experience (2007) has many “Glosses” that enliven the text, serve all the functions suggested here, and more. Agamben’s text, just as Franco-Czech writer Milan Kundera consciously composes his novels, has an almost musical, contrapuntal structure. Leland de la Durantaye’s (2009) “critical introduction” to Agamben’s work has more didactic “Scholia” sprinkled throughout the text, in an effort to deepen our understanding of Agamben’s rich, allusive writing.

In his first Gloss on one of Montaigne’s essays, Agamben lets the French master tell us the story of his fall from a horse, his loss of consciousness and the gradual recovery of his senses. I refer you to Montaigne himself for edification. Then Agamben offers his gloss:

This memory furnishes Montaigne with the pretext for a series if digressions, where the twilight state [Agamben is too wise a reader to miss the neurological overtones of this poetic but scientifically precise phrase] comes to stand for a form of experience which, albeit specific, is also in a sense experience at its extreme and most authentic, emblematically summing up the entire scope of inquiry of the Essays. (Agamben, 2007, p. 44)

An excursus, then, in a text as in life, is a pretext for allowing contingency—even horrific ideas or frightening accidents—to enter our lives, and to be open to what is extreme and authentic to become real events for us.

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