We always seek to understand things, phenomena, topics, concepts. However, the road to this understanding always has as its critical juncture the grasping of a distinction, or difference. It’s as though we need two forms of understanding: one that we set out with, which hopes to grasp an object top to tail, and see it in its particularity, divorced from everything else, and another, which we invariably end up passing through, in which the thing is grasped as figure emerging from a ground or field, differentiating itself from it. Thus, there is no comprehension of humanity without humanity differentiating itself from the animal, from the object, or from the environment. The individual from the class. The point from the field. The element from the set.
This first understanding, that hopes to let the ground fall into nothingness and the desired object to stand on its own, unconnected to everything else, enjoys a priority because of how it is implicated in the form of the question “what is …?” We love this question. It would seem, for example, to form the spine of the idea of the encyclopedia, which would hope to lay bare the essence of each and every individual thing, organized by their names. The logic of the search engine.
But everybody recognizes, eventually, that this form of understanding cannot be achieved on its own terms – pedagogically, every object must be encountered in that moment it falls away from its contrasting origin class. The first form of understanding falls away into the second that forms its true ground. Every object, to be understood in its isolation and particularity, needs its ‘point of distinction’. This point of distinction is not so much a property but an act or event, an observation we make, or are forced to make, and plays the role of passport or other identification document. The text of such a document, then, can only be seen as an essence if we, after the fact, suppress the event, the echo of the stamp or mark, ink now drying.
The paradox is, then, that the understanding can only grasp a thing through the field that it differentiates itself from, with this field itself being yet another object to be grasped in a similar way. What, all things are merely a vector inseparable from their origin from which they derive their ‘essence’ as a system of coordinates? A foam emerging from foam… Yet one we grasp in a, as a, moment.