In a way I could narrate my whole life as a series of disappointed mentors. Trailing in my wake is one disappointment after another. I have disappointed everyone, it would seem.
A striking number of people have told me, with great conviction, that I ought to be doing or being some thing. It’s often revealed that they themselves occupy the role they imagine for me (or are otherwise invested in it). Does this tendency to be the recipient of projections arise because I seem limned by potentiality, as if I carry potential space around with me, a space that they want to fill with their own visions of a good life? (The same dynamic has sometimes characterized my thesis project.)
Apostrophe is embarrassing, as Jonathan Culler says, but not in the sense that we should be embarrassed, but in the sense that it exposes something. To apostrophize and to be apostrophized are both to take a personal risk of self-exposure. In that risky and exposing movement is the possibility of a recuperation of the human: the transition between two thingnesses.
To have a genuine conversation, you have to apostrophize. You have to jump, and you may not land where there is any land to land on. (Cavell’s “leap into language” comes to mind.)
There are moments in conversation in which a break happens, a risk is taken. These moments are apostrophes. They require a leap between two things that are not connected, some sort of topological tear or flip. If I want to go from addressing you as I currently know you to you as a yet unknown possibility, I have to take the risk of behaving as if this other thing exists in you and is willing to be animated. Taking this risk is the indispensable origin of intersubjectivity.
This relationship between apostrophe and existence is encapsulated perfectly in St. Anselm of Canterbury’s so-called ontological proof. Pressed to write a rational argument for God’s existence that might be shared with students outside his direct sphere of influence, Anselm turns away from his students and apostrophizes God, whom he finds by turning into himself and shutting everything out—leaving only him and God. To address another when one is all alone requires, inevitably, a leap of faith. It is, you will argue, logically contradictory to place a leap of faith at the center of a proof of existence: the leap has rendered the proof unnecessary. Anselm’s proof is unlikely to convert anyone who doesn’t already believe. But it reveals that, for him, the notion of existence is fundamentally apostrophic.
The character in Chinese for “basic orientation toward virtue” is composed of two stroke-pairs. The character is homophonic with the word for person (rén), and it is moreover composed of two halves: one half that is the radical form of the word for person, and another half that means two. The simple interpretation: one’s basic orientation toward virtue is concomitant with one’s personhood and the significance of interpersonal interaction: to orient oneself toward virtue is to orient oneself toward other people, toward relationships. But I am tempted to go further and ask whether the insight that one’s basic orientation toward virtue comes with a basic sense of twoness is not a statement about the dual nature of how we perceive one another. In other words, is it the case that when we speak with another person, we always perceive them dually? You might ask: what is so special about the number two? Why stop there—why not three, four, infinity? And so, you might go on, rather than emphasizing the duality of others, we should always have already acknowledged their infinite multiplicity. But I have a suspicion that there is something special about the number two. Two is the number of contradiction, not three or even infinity; two is the number through which we grasp the significance of moving away from the number one. Three items become a list; two items invite comparison, opposition, differentiation. Differ, we say, not triffer. (And we speak of dualists vs. non-dualists.) So because of the power of the number two, we recognize that we are speaking to someone who is both x and not-x: inside and outside, actual and conceptual, life and snapshot, voice and thing, spirit and flesh, unknown and known. The number two in the Chinese character is a demand to recognize that knowing or being known by another person is not merely complex (which probably sounds oxymoronic) but actually a contradiction.