A slowing 5: Attentive decentering (2)

Part 2

...And in this attention to being, this quiet, this un-writing, we recognize beauty. The dead fly, the seen thing, the slowing.

Attention itself, and more importantly its transformative quality, is a necessary foundation to a clear vision of non-violence. We may understand that there is a relationship between aesthetic work and ethical work. As Elaine Scarry has noted, beauty can lead to an ethical attention that is “distributional”  -- and she describes such beauty as pacific (82). Our encounter with beauty evokes a “radical decentering,” one that shifts our attention outward, unselfishly, to generosity of attention (109).

This “radical decentering” must be tuned in to a centering, too. Focus. Not only might beauty turn our attention and shape a sensitivity to justice, but the risks of ugliness and violence might be made sensible and coherent in proportion to this attention. How might we convey through beauty the horrors of trauma, art that recognizes pain and its relationship to ethics?

Just this week, in "The Condition of Black Life Is One of Mourning," Claudia Rankine writes, "We live in a country where Americans assimilate corpses in their daily comings and goings." The corpses of neighbors, lovers, brothers, mothers, sons, strangers, anonymous bodies, all dead. What can -- must -- art do to disrupt the assimilation? Art, its beauties and brutalities, does have the capacity to trouble, but how? And to what end? So many bodies swarm. So much noise.

It would be terribly easy to ignore Duras' fly in a baroque literary landscape.  Duras forces us, through her refusal to elaborate here, to reckon with death and our own perception of world. In resistance to the proliferation of diffused attention, to the proliferation in contemporary media of what Avital Ronell calls “corpses that don’t need to be mourned,” we can slow for quiet, because the gaps might be filled by our attention. This gesture of attention is important. To “only watch [the fly]” is to decenter and to recenter. It is a necessary step in art’s lean toward the moral.

We might look at Anne Carson’s “Short Talks,” in which she distills the “talk” into just a few words, tightening to the point of almost invisible brevity.  Carson consistently refuses to say what is unsayable, her refusal to elaborate when the truth is the unknown.  In Decreation, she observes that Marguerite Porete, in the 14th century, was “trying to use the simplest language   and the plainest marks to express a profoundly tricky spiritual fact,” a technique Carson herself also uses (169).  She refuses to locate what is unstable, evoking in most of her work the kind of experience she describes in her early work on eros as desirous longing, where the intensity of emotion is perceptible (or almost) in the reach.  The reaching towards is a movement, not a place, not an it.  In this gesture is the sweep of beauty. The dance. This is a necessary reach toward the necessary attention, one which may be a slowing, in spite of its urgency.

The work of beauty is complex. The poetic gives as it yet takes away, creating as it decreates, withholding to make room for the experience of art’s doing. The encounter with the hollows of language’s limitations – the space of the unsayable, the untranslatable of language and – further and harder, ontology – is more than a blank.  Or it is in such a space that ethical demands are made. 

The writer who resists saying the unsayable is opposite of denying the significance of brutal experience: rather, the intensity of works active in quiet, full in blankness, can allow the urgency of the encounter with the brutality of unsayability to be felt by a reader. This is an ethical gesture, potentially more assertive than more graphic claims for activism. In hollows we might grieve, feel, contemplate, and be altered.  To open to the pause of quiet is to be present in the face of transformation -- being in art, beauty’s sensitivity to justice, and in this choke, gasp, gulp, the eyes close a moment, too long, then seeing, clearly, altered. Decentered and attentive.


Carson, Anne. Decreation: Poetry, Essays, Opera. New York: Vintage, 2005.
Duras, Marguerite. Writing. 1993. trans. Mark Polizzotti. Cambridge: Lumen, 1998.
Rankine, Claudia. "The Condition of Black Life Is One of Mourning."
New York Times. Web 22 June 2015. http://nyti.ms/1H9Bvsz
Ronell, Avital. The ÜberReader: Selected Works of Avital Ronell. University of Illinois, 2007.
Scarry, Elaine. On Beauty and Being Just. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999.