2007 Commencement

Friday, June 15, 2007 - 14:29
Baccalaureate Address
Siraj Ahmed, assistant professor of English
May 26, 2007

Before I begin, I just wanted to note that as I wrote this, I had the image of many of you in my mind, whom I feel so lucky to have taught and advised. I hope those of you recognize yourselves in this; in more ways than I could properly explain, you helped inspire these thoughts.

There are those people in the world who will only praise you when you succeed according to their terms, or rather according to the terms someone else has told them constitute success. They will not think to ask you what you actually want for yourself. They cannot acknowledge that there is part of you so deep within you that no socially sanctioned form of success can ever reach it. "Degree" descends, ironically, from the Latin degradare, to down grade, to take a step down. I hope you take pride in your degrees, but realize they can move you in two directions at the same time. If you give them the power to measure your value, you give them equally the potential to dishonor you. They will feed that part of you that believes that as you are, you are not good enough, and that to be good you must succeed, becoming something you are not now.

To be happy, they tell us, we must succeed. I would suggest rather that we must accomplish something much more intellectually and ethically demanding: we must accept that part of ourselves that feels it has failed. It's always hard to speak about the experience of defeat. It would be perverse to speak about it now, in this moment of laurels and laureation. Still, I wonder is it possible to honor, not success, so-called, but rather the experience of defeat? Is it at least possible to speak of it publicly, to make it the subject of speech? The experience of defeat--despite the fact that each of us confronts it practically every day--is, I would suggest, the very limit of speech.

Anyway, about your capacity for success I have no concerns. I'm 100 percent sure that you will each have more of it than anyone truly needs. But what you will experience as failure--that is another story. Its interpretation makes all the difference. So I'd like to think through that experience with you--one brief lecture, while you are still captive, before I regretfully lose the opportunity ever to lecture you again.

At the essence of the experience of defeat is, I think, the sensation that a part of one's inner life does not work in the outer world, that it cannot produce the effect it seeks.(1) The experience insists that this part of us is abject, that the part of us we consider responsible for our failure does not properly belong to what it means to be human, what it means to be a man, what it means to be a woman. Precisely for this reason--that it makes us feel inhuman--we can barely acknowledge, much less articulate, the experience of defeat.

In fact, though, for us, nothing is more natural than this experience. Indeed, in a sense it is the only experience that is natural for us. In its insatiable desire to succeed, humanity created a new time, the time of history, placing itself under a single imperative: continually to remake itself into something more productive by banishing that part of itself that appears to it to be wasteful; in this sense, humanity--both individual and species--continually, willfully, defeats itself.(2) We are the one form of life that scars itself.

And of course we inflict scars not only on ourselves, but also on the earth, and will no doubt continue to do so in some form until we cease to exist. We can at least take heart that scarred though it is, the earth nonetheless refuses history; it exists in time differently, perpetually recalling the moment before history, in which each form of life and every ecology was always already complete in itself. This is the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, from a poem entitled "On this Earth": "We have on this earth what makes life worth living: April's hesitation, . . . / . . . a woman's point of view about men, the works of Aeschylus, . . . / . . . grass on a stone, . . . and the invaders' fear of memories."(3)

The experience of defeat not only disturbs the triumphalist speech of success, but also offers a different, infinitely richer, form of commemoration. Far from the mark of our abjection or inhumanity, it is precisely what joins us to everything--both human and natural--that has preceded us. In our vulnerability, we are not outside what it means to be alive, but rather deeply immersed in its essence. As the earth is vulnerable to history, so our inner life is vulnerable to this world: two different systems at the point of conflict, utterly incommensurable.

When you do not produce the effect in the world that you seek, it follows not that something lacks in you, but only that the world is in no position to comprehend what you are and what you are about to become, much less evaluate it. Rather than what you must banish, the part of you that does not now work in the world is your difference, your different way of being and valuing, what you must protect and foster, if you are to preserve yourself.

Throughout your lives, the feeling of vulnerability will relentlessly jut through your desire to perceive yourself as simply successful, even after you were sure you finally had it beat.(4) I imagine we will never escape it, that we can never transcend it. Whenever it recurs, it interrupts our self-perception with a reminder of what it really means to be human and to be alive in this world; ultimately, this feeling merely wants to give us our inner life back. At the core of what we experience as defeat and failure is simply a feeling of vulnerability, the most human of experiences; to be alive, as they say, is to be vulnerable. Genuine vitality lies in our communion with that feeling.

But those who believe in external validation may not be impressed by your vulnerability. They allow themselves to speak only the language of success, to evince only a fake confidence, to display only a false mastery. Realize that their manner reveals the fact, not that they are above the experience of defeat, but rather that they live in fear of it. If we could only show them that to place the experience of defeat into speech would not destroy them, we could give them back to themselves.

Perhaps it bears mentioning here that, historically, a primary aim of war, of placing a nation on a war footing, has been precisely to shatter inner life, to destroy the space both of individual and collective thought, by making another logic, a single, univocal politics, so imperative that one dare not speak for oneself.(5) Those who think in terms of war need us to believe that our inwardness is abject and inhuman, that it cannot be the ground of our speech, that we must have their protection to speak, indeed to survive. On-site nationwide studies performed by Johns Hopkins School of Public Health researchers and published in the November 20, 2004, issue of the British peer-reviewed scientific journal The Lancet placed the figure of Iraqi war dead at more than 100,000; the follow-up study published in the October 14, 2006, issue placed the figure at more than 650,000.(6) The point for me is not a magnitude, but rather an absence: the total figure of Iraqi war dead does not enter our public speech. But make no mistake: these speechless figures, these figures that must remain outside the limit of our triumphal speech, this refuse of history, represent as well the emptying out of our own inner lives. We are spiritually impoverished, when there exists a human experience on which our success is founded, but of which we dare not speak.

If we are to oppose those who want to sacrifice the earth and all that it has meant to war without end, we must first of all guard our inwardness with great care and gentleness, not to let it be invaded by anyone who is not open to it. We will need to learn to adore what in us is shy of speech, what is tentative, uncertain, and diffident, what possesses the courage to cast doubt on its own words, what takes care to replace the rhetoric of success with the memory of what it excludes. We will need to let ourselves become something strange, something that perhaps cannot now exist, something that will of necessity have to create a language of its own, something that when it does will bring new worlds into existence.

I would suggest that every time you feel you have failed, every time you feel defeated, what has in fact happened is that a part of you has refused, refused to play by their rules, to enter their processes of gradation and degradation, their values.(7) You refuse the work of history, to work in their world, on their terms.(8) You rest in who you are, your different way of being in the world. I honor your refusals. In them, you suddenly become much older than you appear, much wiser than those who stand in authority above you; you come from another time; you gesture toward other worlds.

For countless millennia, the story of our earth appears to have been one long struggle fought by common life against the rise of separate power. It would appear now that the earth has definitively lost that struggle. But perhaps what has been given to us in this time of war we have tragically inherited is to re-create that common earth, over and over again, in small forms as well as large, within this world, but against it. I don't trust speech, least of all my own; I don't really trust people who need to give speeches. But there is nothing that moves me more than thinking--rooted deeply in our earth, standing alone or in a small collective against their world--that dares to broach what is impolitic and to dream of a common earth, to re-create it first of all with infinite patience in the very form of thought. We know that you are a special class; we confess to each other now that we have never seen a class like you before; we don't expect to see another anytime soon. We have been dazzled by your capacity to create alternative worlds, both within our classes and without. It seems that you have always realized that there is no time left for the fantasy of a world without scars, that conflict will be the condition of our time. In these conflicts, not of our making, in which we must engage, but not on their terms, we re-create that lost common earth--we each by ourselves within ourselves suspend the conflict--whenever we fold back into our common life the memory of an experience that bears the scars of defeat.(9)

My thanks to Amy Martin and Nigel Alderman for reading and improving the prior incarnation of this speech and to Sanjay Krishnan for a discussion of the life whose work gives history, but whose singular form of being must remain outside it (cf. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, "A Literary Representation of the Subaltern" in In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics (Routledge, 1988), 241-68).

(1)"Defeat" from the Latin defacere, effectively to undo; "fail" from the Latin fallere, to deceive or disappoint.
(2)"Banishing" here alludes to the ancient concept of the "ban." Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (Stanford University, 1998), 181: "The original political relation is the ban (the state of exception as zone of indistinction between outside and inside, exclusion and inclusion)."
(3)Mahmoud Darwish, Unfortunately, It Was Paradise (University of California, 2003), 6.
(4)"Jut" here is meant to recall the relationship of earth and history (or "world"). Martin Heidegger, "The Origin of the Work of Art," in Poetry, Language, and Thought (Harper and Row, 1971), 47: "The earth is the spontaneous emerging toward nothing of that which constantly closes itself and thus saves itself. World and earth are essentially different from one another and yet are never separated. The world grounds itself on the earth, and earth juts through world."
(5)Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (Penguin, 2004), 3-62.
(6)"About half of the households surveyed were uncertain who was responsible for the death of a household member"; "The proportion of deaths attributed to coalition forces diminished in 2006 to 26 percent. Between March 2003 and July 2006, households attributed 31 percent of deaths to the coalition" (http://www.jhsph.edu/publichealthnews/press_releases/2006/burnham_iraq_2...).
(7)"Refuse" also from Heidegger: "Dasein thus finds itself delivered over to beings that refuse themselves in their totality [Das Dasein findet sich so ausgeliefert an das sich im Ganzen versagende Seinende]" (The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics: World, Finitude, Solitude (Indiana University, 1995), 139; Die Grundbegriffe der Metaphysik. Welt-Endlichkeit--Einsamkeit (Klostermann, 1983), 210). In German, refusal is, etymologically, linked to speech, "versagen."
(8)The idea of grace as workless [senz'opera] comes from Agamben, The Open: Man and Animal (Stanford University, 2004), 87.
(9)The idea of suspending the conflict is meant to recall Walter Benjamin's desire to aufheben the dialectic of progress in "a Messianic cessation of happening" ("Theses on the Philosophy of History," Illuminations [Schocken, 1968], 263).