David Brazil is a writer, bookseller, editor, and translator.
I wanted to present some reflections on the question of vocation, and to introduce this concept I'd like to cite a verse from Paul's first letter to the church at Corinth -- chapter 7, verse 20 :
εκαστοs εν τη κλησει η εκληθη εν ταυτη μενετω.
[Hekastos en te klesei he eklethe taute meneto.]
In the Latin of Jerome this is rendered :
Unusquisque in qua vocatione vocatus est in ea permaneat.
(In which, even if you don't understand Latin, you can hear the precursor of our word "vocation," which as far as I can tell first appears as a noun in the Vulgate.)
If I were to render a very literal translation of the Greek I might venture : Each one in the calling in which he was called, in that same calling let him remain. (It's a kind of impersonal imperative in which the verb, "meneto," commands the remaining of "ekastos," Jerome's "unusquisque" -- each and every person whatsoever -- a kind of axiom governing how anyone ought to respond to the event of a call -- a kind of applied phenomenology.)
I've often thought of this gnomic utterance in the course of the my vexed progress through my factical life, as someone who understood their purpose (as coded by the word "vocation") to be at odds with the necessity dictated by prevailing ontic terms, which admitted no place for this vocation -- which moreover denied it any meaning, and place at all, insofar as it has (vocation, I mean) no ontological standing in our episteme -- which in the first place does not admit of any meaning inhering in premises outside the physical / material, and in the second place holds to the notion, a hangover of Puritan theology, that what is righteous will be granted due appearance through the operations of the law of the market -- in the pithy formulation of Guy Debord, "What appears is necessary ; what is necessary, appears" -- meaning, implicitly, of course, that if you're thwarted from appearing -- if your appearance was foreclosed -- that nothing about that appearance can be deemed necessary.
This is the ideology of a secularized providence which always however seems suspiciously to show its manna on the preselected, making its preterite parts wonder (or more than wonder -- assert) that something's rigged in the preestablished harmony of this particular pachinko machine.
But what the preserved saying of Paul seemed to me to address is precisely the problem of how one ought to comport oneself with respect to the experience of vocation. (This is also why I see fit to gloss writing best known through its situation in the corpus of canonical Christian texts, to a non-religious gathering -- because so much of Paul's writing deals with a phenomenology of human response to overwhelming facts, as Heidegger knew quite well when he presented his 1920 seminar on religious life.)
(I might also digress for a moment to observe that if we accept the customary etymological tracing of our word "religion" from the Latin "religare," to bind back together or to rebind, it would be quite possible to speak of our present occasion as, not a non-religious gathering, but as, perhaps, a non-non-religious gathering -- depending, of course, on an expanded account of what we will say the religious is, for which I would like to argue. But I anticipate myself.)
We know that we experience the call (the κλησιs [klesis], from the Greek verb καλεω [kaleo], to call, which becomes in Jerome vocatione, a Latin noun constructed on similar principles from the verb vocare, and from which Max Weber fashioned a theoretical term for sociology in his essays on politics and science as vocations -- and which we all know as a word and effortlessly use ignorant of its history, in a perfectly eloquent illustration of the way in which we're all walking around with theology in our mouths) -- the call, but in the era that we imagine to be secular, this call turns out to be ungroundable, since we can't postulation with any dogmatic certainty the source of the call.
(A similar problematic underlies the historical vicissitudes of the Greek word χαριs [charis], gift, on which I co-presented a seminar with Brandon Brown earlier this year. From a pre-Christian usage in Greek writers it became a technical term in the letters of Paul for the gift from God that man can't earn (otherwise known as grace), and at the beginning of our century is refashioned, again by Weber, in his concept of the charismatic leader -- thus begging the question, if there is a gift then who gave it, or as Heidegger might say, "What gives?")
(Although I believe there is a valuable lead in Dana Ward's observation that Jack Spicer's "Outside" can also be the social -- a perception that warms my gnostic-Benjaminian-Feuerbachian heart!)
The problem of sourcelessness and ungroundability, which defeats the possibility for this subjective experience to appear within the laws of the frame of reading that this episteme is, is also of course the basic structure of Romanticism from Blake to the present -- the assertion by artists, in their artwork and otherwise, of the reality of what escapes the continually encroaching mensuration of the physical world and the concomitant enclosure of the psychic world.
The singularity of the experience of vocation, which structures everything about how some of us make our decisions to act in the world and how we live and have lived our lieves, is a subset of the movement of the spirit that prior antinomians, our forebears and elective ancestors, could appeal to against tyrannous orthodoxies -- the assertion by Anne Hutchinson, for example, that she and other women had the right denied to them by the fathers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, to read and interpret Scripture. Better to defy the Church, she said at her trial, than to deny Christ.
And if we undogmatically understand Christ to be the inward principle of inspiration that vocation codes, and to which we are obliged to be faithful, we will see what I think is another basic axiom of the phenomenology of vocation. We'll see how this subjective experience opens out into a dialectic with the social -- at first, antithetically, as the refusal of all of what cannot be reconciled with the inward demand ("Better to defy the church ..."), and subsequently, in a necessarily more nuanced and implicated fashion, how the experience of a writerly vocation interacts with the obligations attendant upon a proletarian life -- how the opposition of proletarian & writer, which was the point of departure for my thoughts on vocation, can enter into a more complex relation than as mere antinomies, and how they can also help us imagine formal means by which to present and thematize in our writing work the injustices, aporias and invisibilities we are consigned to experience as proletatians.
I use the word proletarian advisedly, in order to assert its continued analytical usefulness within our social order and speech domain. The proletarian is simply any person who has nothing to sell but his or her labor -- "who has to sell his labor in order to eat," in the words of the anthropologist Sidney Mintz. Reverting to the verse from Corinthians with which I began, to be a writer is a calling, but to be a proletarian is the state in which we are called.
So once we cease to treat these terms as mere opposites, and cease to act as though our proletarianism has nothing to do with our "real work" of writing, what kind of dialectical sparks can be seen to fly? What can come out of our perception of "the contradiction which the essence of objects has in itself," to quote the definition of dialectics arrived at by Lenin in his philosophical notebooks? And with the special caveat that the object under consideration is ourselves?
First, perhaps, that we are, ourselves, not merely or not only "ourselves". Insofar as we are proletarians we belong to a class of persons, which in this society largely fails to recognize itself as such, as a class. Therefore any wrong done to me by dint of the fact that I belong to such a class is impersonal, and only befalls me insofar as it befalls a class of persons of whom I happen to be one. "Nothing personal," as Michael Corleone says.
But as writers we work among other things in the field of representations -- and the recognition of the applicability of that collective noun "proletarian" is what permits us to perceive the inadequacy of our present social representation as atomized subjects -- a division created first in imagination, and according to which we subsequently conceive of ourselves -- and which is perfectly in keeping with the needs of a capitalism that is happiest when we are lonely, guilty, needy, indebted, and most importantly not working together in the recognition of our commonality, toward the revision, or the overthrow, of the imaginative regime that consigns us to this sundered form of life.
("The only war that matters is the war against the imagination," writes Diane di Prima in Revolutionary Letters -- "all other wars are subsumed in it." And she's right. And major combat operations have not ceased.)
The singularity vocation is may well encounter in its peregrinations other singularities of like constitution, and it's in this connection that I'd like to mention another noun derived from καλεω [kaleo], to call, and that's εκκλησια [ekklesia], from which we get our word "ecclesiastical". In Thucydides and other writers, ekklesia is the legislative assembly -- etymologically "those ones called out from" the larger body of the citizenry, for the purposes of making law.
In Paul this becomes the name of the church itself, the mystical body of those ones called out, as Israel was itself called out from among the nations, to heed the call. In our secular-phenomenological account, I postulate the ekklesia as those singularities, have experienced the call, volatilized by its seeming irreconciliability with their worldly station, and therefore affined to those in whom they recognize a kindred predicament. In the words of Alain Badiou, the ekklesia should be envisioned as "a small group of militants."
(The conservative philosopher Eric Voegelin, criticizing modern thinkers in whom he detects a gnostic streak, decries them as "mystical activists," which is as good a shorthand for my vocation as I understand it, as I have found so far -- and with an even better flavor for having been seized from an ideological enemy.)
Without aiming to be formally prescriptive, it may be the case that vocation, and and its social concomitant, ekklesia, can serve as a bridge between the individual subject, placeless in this social order because governed inwardly by a placeless fact, and the collective being that is "dying every day" without a new series of representations by which to understand itself, the injustices being done to it, who the adversaries are, and what the scope of the problem is -- which is well-nigh apocalyptic at this point.
But we may do well to remember, in these apocalyptic times, that the literature of apocalyptic in the Jewish pseudepigraphia, of which the Christian-canonical Apocalypse of John is a belated successor (a johnny-come-lately, if you will), that this literature succeeded the prophetic books of the Old Testament and was authored under the same pressure -- αποκαλυπτειν [apocaluptein], as the Greek verb from which our word is derived has it, to unconceal -- to show forth a hidden thing. In this world, governed as it is by orchestrations of amnesia and the electrical coercion of the imagination through forms of appearance always in the hands of archons executing some sick plan or other, the experience of vocation, individually and collectively, may well be a program of responsibility, to transmit saving counterblasts from elsewhere.
"For we fight not against flesh and blood,
but against principalities and powers."