From Erdmut Wizisla's Preface to Walter Benjamin's Archive:
Benjamin's mode of working is marked by the techniques of archiving, collecting, and constructing. Excerpts, transpositions, cuttings-out, montaging, sticking, cataloguing and sorting appear to him to be true activities of an author. His inspiration is inflamed by the richness of materials. Images, documents, and perceptions reveal their secrets to the look that is thorough enough. Benjamin was interested in the incidental. He loved to think in marginal areas, in order to push out from there to the center; he liked to use the phrase "most central." His capacity for immersion and his preparedness to make connections allowed him to discover essential things in details. Fragments recombined into new things; this researcher converted them into something distinctive. (4)I feel excellent about invoking him as another godparent of the Cabinet, here on my 800th post.
I write this not in self-aggrandizement but in homage.
I have been picking and compiling and arranging all day, little hopping bird with a line of text from over there, a line of thinking from over here, eyes bright, scurrying. There are insights; I remember--I can see--how what I do is different from what has been done. The accompanying quandary:
In my field, when we say, "I have to give a paper," we mean, "I will stand up and read a ten-page paper." When I say, "I have to give a talk," knowing that the talk should last 45 minutes, I think, "I have to write a 6500 word prose piece." And yet my gut is telling me so strongly that, because I have rocked out for 45 minutes (and more!) at seminar tables on multiple continents, and because I have never once had a 6500-word script to read during those sessions of rocking out, I do not need to carry some 20 pages of prose into a Cambridge seminar room tomorrow. (I should note that my notes, at this point, are about 2900 words, and that's without a couple of things I still need to cobble in from elsewhere.)
And yet, and yet. I find myself thinking, something will go wrong, something will go horribly wrong. I'm not sure what I think this "something" is. The horribly wrong things that happen during talks are generally results of a) incompetence; b) lack of preparation; c) lack of interest; d) catastrophic sudden-onset illness; or e) open malice. B is the only one that I can get anywhere near on this list, and given that everything academic that I've done since June 2000 has led to this point, even I, even if I were in a totally self-deprecating mood, couldn't fault myself with that one. Yet I keep thinking, "Well, anyway, they can't fire me, because I don't work here." As if I'm in danger of giving a presentation that's so bone-headed that someone would think that I should be made to leave my job, here or anywhere else.
I don't think that I've ever given you this clear a look at what my head is like when I'm getting ready to teach. Because teaching is what this is--teaching when I haven't done it (formally) for awhile, and when I feel as though there's no way to keep my head around the matter before me and in me. The positive way to view this feeling--and so the one that I will embrace as I get back to work--is that I do know so much and care so much about what I know that I can't bear not to get a presentation like this right. I do actually want to give a presentation that will make the material texts around my audience suddenly start speaking up.
Really: this is what it's like when I work with a manuscript: I can almost hear it whispering, can almost hear the sounds of the writers and editors and readers and marginalialists thinking--as though they're whispering to themselves the things they're writing and reading, as though the pages in front of me are alive with talk. Given the things I work on, often the sounds they make are low keenings, little cries and insistences that someone hear them, that someone do the right thing with them, or for them--even when they don't always make that an easy task.
"I am," one of my correspondents wrote to the other, in the microfilm I was reading on Saturday, "still much in love with the idea of our publishing your book together."
I am in love with getting these ideas right, but as with love in other guises, I am also terribly, terrifically, stupefiedly impatient, and unwilling to misstep. I suspect that getting ready to misstep is going to put me on a fast track to getting un-impatient, as well.