Kierkegaard wrote "without authority", "proprio Marte, propriis auspiciis, proprio stipendio". He never held an academic post and produced one of the most original bodies of work in the philosophical canon. He is rightly celebrated as an outsider that had enormous influence, a "scoundrel", if you will, and he himself identified strongly with Socrates, who of course also worked without institutional authority. What is sometimes forgotten, however, is that Kierkegaard strongly resented his exclusion from academia.
In continuation of Monday's post, I want to talk about the relationship of Levi's ideas about authority to his ideas about originality, staying focused all along on the problem of writing. Levi rightly talks about his views here as "tics and phobias" and as "an impediment to writing", but he manages to reconstruct these "fractal like symptoms" as signs of deeper virtues. Such a reconstruction (of weakness as virtue) is, of course, a classic operation of ressentiment. Let's see how it works here.
"In my core," Levi says, "I am profoundly anti-authoritarian, suspicious of any groups, and resistant to any demands." But he is not, of course, arguing that in order to become a more productive writer, a better writer than he, and a happier one, one should get over one's anti-authoritarianism. Rather, he is arguing that one should avoid writing in genres that are governed by authority. One should write blog posts and letters, and blog-posts-cum-letters. In a slogan, epistles not articles. (That, by the way, is what we're doing right now.) When one does write an article or a conference paper, i.e., when one does pretend to be an "author", one should "trick" oneself into thinking that one is really writing a long letter. If it is published, so be it, one still wrote it without authority.
(I am, of course, trying to draw the standard connection between "authority" and "authorship", which is also a running theme, if I recall, in Kierkegaard's The Point of View for My Work as an Author. )
The same insistence on not treating the disease beneath the symptoms of ressentiment can be seen in how Levi talks about originality. He begins with a clear sense of the weakness of his attitude (qua point of view for the work of writing):
[T]he biggest issue I struggle with when it comes to writing is originality. Am I saying something original? Do I have something original to say? The pursuit of originality, I believe, is one of the most paralyzing things for writers and among the greatest impediments to writing.
But after a digression on kudzu (a weed, whose growth he likens to writing), he reconstructs this impediment (namely, the pursuit of originality) as something altogether more productive:
[W]e suffer from a sort of transcendental illusion. We (or I) think to ourselves that if we have an idea it can’t possibly be original precisely because the idea is familiar to us. It is not new to us. But writing is not for us, but for others, whether those others be our own future selves or the self we are becoming in the act of writing (writing has the magical power to remake you) or for the others who might read our scratchings on bit of napkins. On the other hand, originality cannot be anticipated. If originality could be anticipated it wouldn’t be originality. Rather, originality follows the logic of Lacan’s tuche or chance encounter. Originality is something that occasionally takes place, but if it does take place it can only be known as having had taken place, it can never be experienced in the moment. We only ever know that originality has taken place retroactively. As a consequence, it’s important to surrender the desire to anticipate originality so as to clear a space in which the event or chance occurrence of originality might take place.
Don't worry, that is; you are probably more original than you think. In fact, don't think about it too much. Let it happen. If it does, it will happen "by chance". If people take your "scratchings on bits of napkin" as sure signs of genius, let them. But don't try to make that happen. Rather, trust that it will. I'll grant that that last bit of "faith" is not made explicit in Levi's post, but it is, I think, part of the attitude I'm trying to get at here.
There is another view of originality, of course. It ties the novelty of one's contribution directly and constructively to a respect for authority. In your field, especially as you enter it (note that Levi was unable to respect authority even in school), there are people who do the things you want to be able to do well, people who do those things much better than you. Your aim should be, first and foremost, to master the skills that they master, to learn what they know, to develop your talents in imitation of theirs. Why would you worry about, or even valorize, originality before you have attained basic competence? Indeed, the desire to be original, which, like I say, is transubstantiated by ressentiment into the presumption that you already are original ... or not, but the question is in any case out of your hands ... is too often simply an unwillingness to learn, to study, to pass through the humble (and, for some, humiliating) experience of apprenticeship.
Notice the problem with Levi's position: "originality" is relativized entirely to "the other" who reads your work. To be original, then, all you have to do is find a sufficiently ignorant, sufficiently incompetent audience. This may include your "future self", i.e., your own self once you have forgotten what book you just read your most recent brilliant idea in. The other view of originality holds you to a higher standard—the standard that is defined by the best work currently being done in your field. You should seek out those living masters, these authorities, and study, yes, under them, if only virtually, by reading them, and, importantly, by submitting your work humbly for review in the journals where their work is published. For most people at an early stage, enrolling in a middling university will do. The "trick" is to have some respect for those who already know what you are just beginning to understand. Do your assigned reading out of respect for this knowledge. Don't resent the accomplishments of those you aspire to become.
[Update: "The path to originality is to forget about originality, like Pierre Menard. Originality is tiresome if it is sought after, courted, forced.//Be derivative, like Robert Duncan" (Jonathan Mayhew).]