But what about “When you know you’ll fail, try, try anyways”?

This one is much more realistic in some situations, but so much harder to motivate oneself to do. One could say that if you know your goal or your expectations are impossible to attain, then you need to revise them. Or maybe it’s just a matter of moving bits and pieces around. Making smaller goals that will eventually lead towards the larger goal gives you more opportunities to feel successful. Another possibility is that it’s a matter of our personal relationship with desire. Some of us begin to feel all itchy and fidgety and uncomfortable when the feeling of contentment approaches. (I know, this is oxymoronic.) MORE, MORE, MORE, our brains say, desiring desire itself. Others are equally uncomfortable with that kind of instability and constant movement.

All this aside, what about those times we want something badly, know we will fail, and yet we try anyways? How and why do we motivate ourselves even when we’re doomed?

Two weeks ago, I read Gayatri Spivak’s A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present (Harvard UP 1999). Spivak is one of my favorite writers, even though there’s so much I don’t understand in her work. I had already read sections of A Critique in the past, but finally reading through the book as a whole helped me understand differently some pieces and revealed some of the sources of her ideas that I hadn’t been able to follow to their roots before.

Still, my notes were speckled with comments like “This page seems important, but there’s a lot going on I don’t get,” and “I have no idea what is going on in this entire section!”

So, last week I reread Edward Said’s Orientalism, hoping to step back and get some perspective. Said did give me a breather from Spivak’s writing style, and forced me to reread some of Spivak’s passages, but I don’t feel any smarter than I did a week ago.

Today I returned to Spivak’s book and typed up my pages of handwritten notes, but those parenthetical panic attacks remain in the typed version. “Go back to p. 257 again to figure this out!” How long will it be before I actually return to page 257? Will I ever figure it out? Part of me thinks not.

So why bother writing these notes?

I still have the first copy a professor ever gave me of Spivak’s seminal essay “Can the subaltern speak?”. Despite completely covering it in different colors of highlighter, underlining, margin notes, section divisions, and word definitions, I sorely misunderstood Spivak’s points. Today, I can almost laugh at my (recent) past self and see some of the places where I went wrong. How many more there are, I may find out in a year or two. Or not. Who knows.

I didn’t read A Critique just to catch little sparkles of insight here and there. I didn’t spend so many hours just so that I can spend so many more hours rereading it next year and understand marginally more. I read the book in order to understand the book! To swallow it whole and incorporate the knowledge into my cells so that when I wake up the next day I am a different being in the world, like one who sees more light waves and hears more soundwaves and senses other dimensions. Instead I still have to look up the word “aporia” in the dictionary every time Spivak writes it.

I failed, and I knew I was going to fail from the start. I could have spent all those hours reading a different book from which I would have absorbed a much higher percentage of the content. This would have been a much more utilitarian application of my time and effort. I got greedy, though. MORE, MORE, MORE, my brain said.

Oh well.
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Here, if you’re curious, have some timely tidbits from the end of A Critique of Postcolonial Reason:
“history is larger than personal goodwill, and we must learn to be responsible as we must study to be political” (378)

“learning [from the original practical ecological philosophies of the world] can only be attempted through the supplementation of collective efforts by love. What deserves the name of love is an effort—over which one has no control yet at which one must not strain—which is slow, attentive on both sides … The necessary collective efforts are to change laws, relations of production, systems of education, and health care. But without the mind-changing one-on-one responsible contact, nothing will stick.” (383)

“We all know that when we engage profoundly with one person, the responses—the answers—come from both sides. Let us call this responsibility, as well as “answer”ability or accountability. We also know, and if we don’t we have been unfortunate, that in such engagements, we want to reveal and reveal, conceal nothing. Yet on both sides, there is always a sense that something has not got across. This is what we call the secret, not something that one wants to conceal, but something that one wants desperately to reveal in this relationship of singularity and responsibility and accountability.” (384)