The adventitious

In a philosophy paper I am presently working on, I lean heavily on the term “adventitious.” I say that the changes an ordinary artifact undergoes over time with respect to its parts are adventitious to it (and hence that a theory of such artifacts that ‘builds in’ these changes to an object’s identity is mistaken). I liked the term “adventitious” here but thought, mistakenly, that I was using it merely as a stylistic variant of “contingent.” I now think, in fact, that it gets at something deeper, or at least other, than contingency (though you’ll have to consult the paper, when it’s ready, to get a sense of what I’m gesturing at).

A few days ago I posted here about how I was re-thinking which memes would be included in my book A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!. The book, you could say, was undergoing an adventitious change in its parts. But I am made anxious by these changes. Not because I fear for the identity of the book. It is, in my mind, the very same book, only now with (slightly) different parts. I fear, rather, a different kind of loss.

How have I made the decisions about which memes to retain and which to remove? There are two ways a meme can keep its place. It must either be of sufficiently high quality itself or it must provide me with an occasion for some interesting commentary. While I feel fairly confident in my judgments of quality (only once or twice have I dithered over some meme, wondering if it is good enough for inclusion), I cannot tell, in advance of trying to write the commentary on it, whether a meme will occasion interesting commentary. And that is not an adventitious fact about the work. It is deeply central to what I am doing that I should be open to the adventitious in writing the commentaries. That is the process that underlies the work’s resemblance to the Wunderkammer, the Cabinet of Curiosities.

For example, take the commentary on the Yiddish meme which I have recently posted about three times. It is true that I did have some ideas of what I wanted to write about prior to starting on the commentary (some of which persisted into the final version and some of which did not), but it wasn’t until I wrote about a friend’s remark that the Romanization of the Yiddish gave the meme a “Lithuanian slant” that I took off in the direction of Lita (Jewish Lithuania), the Vilna Gaon, and my own Litvak ancestors. I ended up, quite spontaneously, composing a bibliography of these ancestors’ rabbinic works.


Another meme which appears, in some ways, as utterly banal was the occasion for a commentary the form of which is itself a different kind of meme, around which, as Rashi and the Tosafists go around the central column of gemara in the traditional Talmud page, goes a commentary on the commentary. I don’t think that meme would have been purged in the recent re-organization if it had not already been commented upon – despite its banality, I think its quality is high – but it might have.

The more one welcomes and embraces the adventitious, the more opportunity one should provide for it to make itself present. Every meme I eliminate is another door to the unpredictable closed. My judgments about what I will write about in connection with each meme, and which memes are likely to be good occasions for commentary, are in the very nature of things judgments I hope to subvert.

To soothe myself, I sometimes tell myself that all roads lead to Rome. Anything I want to discuss will find a way, a path, to connect with one or another meme. Some free associative path will enable me to connect anything to anything. Nothing will be lost. But this is just to deny the adventitious, to fall back on necessitarianism, as if what will be written about is already laid out in advance. For some aspects of the book, that feels right. But one cannot truly embrace the value of the adventitious without embracing the possibility of loss. Devastating loss, even. I have to make peace with the fact that not only is one of the book’s epithets, from the Mishnah (“turn it and turn it for all is contained in it”) false, but that I will never know what might have been contained in the work but isn’t. (Loss, unsurprisingly given the centrality to the work of the adventitious, is itself one of the principal themes of the book! See, for example, my ‘Batman meme movie’ Gone!)

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