Tuesday, December 23, 2003

And Thus Begins a Thesis; or Writing an Introduction After Chapters One and Two

'Beginning is going on. Everywhere. Amidst all the endings, so rarely ripe or ready. They show up late, these beginnings, bristling with promise, yet labored and doomed. Every last one of them is lovingly addressed: "in the beginning." But if such talk -- talk of the beginning and the ending -- has produced the poles, the boundary markers of a closed totality, if "the beginning" has blocked the disruptive infinities of becoming, then theology had better get out of its own way. -- In the beginning, theology starts again.' (Catherine Keller, Face of the Deep: A Theology of Becoming, p. 3)

'I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were doing when they begot me.' (Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy, p. 1)

'THIS WAS UNCALLED FOR.' (Dave Eggers, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius)

Where to begin? An introduction, in addition to being a formal greeting or welcome -- hello, out there -- is meant to set the tone and the tenor, and to limn the aspirational ambit of a particular project, so as to hint at the chorus of voices and themes that will, in due course and manner, emerge. In so doing, its ending is translated, or in the case of some malignant tomes, metastasises, to its beginning. Typically written after the book's body, and maybe even its conclusion, introductions can often be slightly shady. They are, Mark C. Taylor affirms, 'awkward, embarrassing affairs -- coy games of hide-and-seek, revelation and concealment, appearance and disappearance.' Which is to say, one's conclusion can never be too far very far from the introduction.

Filled with as yet unsubstantiated assertions, an introduction tends to be, according to G. W. F. Hegel, 'a string of random statements and assurances about truth'. The insidious implication of these 'random statements' and 'assurances', he fears, is that they unfaithfully belie truth as an autonomous, constructive particular that illegitimately precedes an author before she attempts to develop an argument or narrative. Such a truth could range from an author's historico-cultural preconceptions and agendas, to the intentions and purposes read into an absent author by her reader. Following his signature dialectical logic, the immediacy of truth this would assume, versus its eventual emergence through the dialectical play of identity-in-difference, is naive irrationalism; as he famously mocks, it is to present the 'Absolute as the night, in which, as people say, all cows are black'. On the contrary, he continues, 'One can say of the Absolute that it is essentially a result, that it is only at the end what it is in truth'. Introductions, then, Hegel sniffs with contempt, are 'not only superfluous but, in view of the nature of the subject matter, even inappropriate and misleading.' Censure of introductions duly accomplished, he thus begins his Phenomenology of Spirit, the mammoth introduction to his vaunted, and often vilified, philosophical system. While I do not make similar systemising claims for my own project here, I dare not miss the importance of his interrogation, nor the instructive irony. After all, appearances do not always deceive, no matter the cliche, for sometimes things are not as they appear.

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And so it goes from there. This thing, the thesis, it is finally beginning to take shape.