Bluejays, fists and W.R. Bion

–Eudora Welty wrote a short story where “bluejays lighted on the rail,” which prompted one reader to write: “Dear Madam, I enjoyed your stories, but bluejays do not sit on railroad tracks.” Welty conceded, on further reflection, that this too had been her own experience. Yet there the bluejays still sit in the Library of America’s definitive edition of Welty’s work. From the other direction, we know through photographs that when Picasso was painting Guernica, he had a powerful image of a clenched fist raised high. That image, however, was painted away under what we see today.

To bring to sight all these present-but-absent bluejays and absent-but-present clenched fists is the challenge of determining what is missing in dominant policy arguments. For what is absent becomes a present for rethinking any fixed picture of things. Clenched fists matter now more than ever, here; rail tracks forever without bluejays is precisely what matters, there.

–To answer “What’s missing?” means seeing any major policy argument, no matter how coherent it reads, as a composite of different phrases and images from different parts of the policy palimpsest for that major issue. Today’s composite argument has been sutured together, asyndetically or paratactically, from the mess that remains once each iteration of policy statement and policy (in)action has overwritten preceding ones.

–In all of this, you cannot assume that the maker and reader of a composite argument know what they are doing. Revealing the underlying pastiche of the seemingly coherent argument and the fact that what has been obscured may well be as important as what has not is a difficult dilemma for which we are all inexperienced and which is a matter open to surprise and opportunity, good and bad.

–So what then do we do? It seems to me there is a next step if we reveal from the get-go the great difficulty, inexperience and not-knowing even in familiar policy matters: We start in the dark and from there ask, What’s to be seen?

“Things shine more brightly to an observer who is in the dark,” Denis Diderot, the French Enlightener, put it in an epigraph. Psychoanalyst, W.R. Bion, offered this metaphor:

Instead of trying to bring a brilliant, intelligent, knowledgeable light to bear on obscure problems, I suggest we bring to bear a diminution of the “light”—a penetrating beam of darkness: a reciprocal of the searchlight. The peculiarity of this penetrating ray is that it could be directed towards the object of our curiosity, and this object would absorb whatever light already existed, leaving the area of examination exhausted of any light it possessed. The darkness would be so absolute that it would achieve a luminous, absolute vacuum. So that, if any object existed, however faint, it would show up very clearly. Thus, a very faint light would become visible in maximum conditions of darkness.

How might this work?

In order to say something new about a major policy issue or see it afresh, I sometimes change the genre within which I think and write about it. The academic article, a short blog, the format of a play, an “I-believe” manifesto–all and more have their own conventions, partial they may be in both meanings of the word.

To take a major “intractable” policy issue that is almost always the subject of policy memos and longer policy briefs, and then focus the dense dark beam of an altogether unfamiliar genre over it, is to see what is left to glimmer there.

If something does glimmer, I think it’s because of the unavoidable ambiguities any major issue brings with it–namely, those elements present in the palimpsest but missing (effaced) in the dominant arguments of the day. Create a vacuum and it gets filled; ambiguity, like any metaphor, calls out to be evaluated. The next step ahead in the dark is open to new (renewed) interpretation.

Principal sources

Bion, W.R. (1990/1973). Brazilian Lectures: 1973, Sao Paulo; 1974, Rio de Janeiro/Sao Paulo. Karnak Books: London

Furbank, P.N. (1992). Diderot: A Critical Biography. Alfred A. Knopf: New York, NY

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