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Editor’s Note:

A Reconciliatory Approach

by Albert Kapikian

(photo by Rochelle Cohen)

The new heresy is to assume good faith, but since Potomac Review comes out of a community college, where we have no principle of sorting, where there is, at least in some rudimentary form, the necessary, if not sufficient, condition for a commons, we have no choice but to listen, and learn from people who cannot so easily draw boundaries, who cannot so readily choose to live inside their own contrivances, people for whom the world gets in, for whom the world, therefore—because people forced to listen to, and learn from, the other—is not yet passe. A heresy was never a falsehood, but a truth improperly amplified, but now that there are no common truths, a reconciliatory approach, though extolled in principle, is forbidden in practice, and the community college, though reproduced in nearly every county in every state, the only place, de facto, where we all still sit with one another, where a coming together across all lines of demarcation still exists, is relegated to the unseen.

We are not naïve to hidden motives behind calls to just come together, how it often serves the fig leaf of bipartisanship, a stalking horse and pretext for discriminatory and/or market forces, and how, in the same way, there are often unspoken and unexamined ideologies behind calls for a supposedly neutral and hidden muse. We have become self-conscious of the historicity of our assumptions and so calling for a reconciliatory approach is itself a call for an ethically engaged aesthetics, a choice of course, and the tragedy that choice implies, is that there are other choices that could just as easily have been argued for and made.  But since Potomac Review comes out of a community college, the course is already made for us. Riffing on Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s formulation, at least as to its cadence, here we are “learning to learn” from each other and see in our principle of non-sorting Amy Clampitt’s “region, / a weather and a point of view / as yet unsettled” where we are forced to see, not separate, and in this kind of seeing present an American form of writing that lives only in its reconciliatory role. Whether or not the country, and the literature coming out of the country, must move towards reconciliation, at our community college, often noted as the most diverse in the continental United States, the necessary conditions already exist to model such love and attention to the other, and while the terms of our existence were not chosen, but given, we have learned from being in such a condition, learned to love its terms despite the enigmas those terms present. It is now our aspiration to create not only the necessary, but the sufficient conditions, setting out to accomplish them by asking questions, not giving answers, opening, not closing doors, hoping to learn about reconciliation from groups who cannot be so quick to draw boundaries, who cannot so quickly withdraw into spaces of separation.

Trading in the world for our common disgust with each other—click like has, as they say in business schools,gone to scale”—our “friendships” are now often based on the pledge to hate the same people. Our apathy with respect to the other, therefore, has been socially engineered, so anything that goes against click like is rooted out, the social good left out of “social” media, its algorithms designed to enrage, not engage, or if engage, to limit, blanket, filter our experience, and feed it back to us because it is calculated for us to like. We are aware that literature for the common good is often bad—inferior literature, as they say, is always written with the best of motives—but when commitment to the common good is heresy, aesthetic values are subordinated to click like, the literature is even worse, the parts of the poem fit too easily together, you always know what’s coming, and a stranger never approaches. There is no commons, just a sense of insulation, calculated insulation. It is no wonder our click like aesthetic is intimately collected with disembodied, socially disconnected forms of intelligence; we cannot automate moral responsibility or an ethic of care when there is nothing at stake. Human intelligence is not just about bond trading—whether Nick Carraway’s in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, or Benjamin Rask’s/Andrew Bevel’s in “Harold Vanner’s” Bonds, the novel within a novel in Hernan Diaz’s Trust. We are not just systems, but also embodied individuals, and though immensely vulnerable to the education of desire, we are also capable of social intelligence and moral reasoning, because we are living in a society with other people where our actions have consequences for the other, the unseen.

Where is the writer today who, rather than using words, is used by words? Now we have a set of ideas and norms that says, even for American poets, if another’s suffering goes against our shared vision, it goes against us. If our knowledge is only our perspective, and the other is not included in it, then the literature of reconciliation, of the transcendence of difference, is impossible. Each side has speech codes, but the greater threat, for a poet, is to choose one side or the other, because for a poet a speech code is machinery, addicted to results, and in those results the other is never also-I. The initial seed of inspiration brings with it restraint and empathy, humility, and gratitude for whomever is abroad, and the decision to share does not include the decision to disqualify, for the decision to share is by definition reconciliatory; the poet will never meet but even a small percentage of their readers. Taking from the cover title of this issue, we are calling for a series of themed issues to explore this reconciliatory approach, beginning with The Other, in Spring 2025, and, in Fall 2025, The Unseen. Like othering, not seeing is also a choice. We are not the only ones who observe and perhaps even engage in forms of mimesis. Just as self implies other, the seen implicates the unseen. Much can be seen and understood, but there is an ever-vanishing horizon, and the other, and the unseen, call into this future. Seeing and failure to see are literary matters, and while our themed issues will be capacious enough to allow for each writer’s vision—transgressive, disruptive, queer, representative of the animal turn in the Anthropocene—they will be defining enough to proscribe that vision into the form of a task, an aesthetic task, where literature is itself seen as a form of reconciliation that does not recognize otherness, difference, disfiguration, or boundaries except as an also-I where the unseen is that aspect of artistic creation that is ahead of its time, that reveals itself as what has not yet been seen. We do not know what the literature is that will meet our moment, that will be seen as ahead of its time, but we have a few guiding principles, coming, as we do, out of a community college, a “system” engineered for the common good—a place, a region, where the opportunity to lead a life of the mind is made available to everyone, a paradisal, magical place amidst the ruins, like Psyche’s palace in C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces, often deliberately unseen, but like yeast injected into the mass, a place where the preconditions for the solution to our country’s predicament perhaps already exist because partaking of the new heresy by looking at, living in, and leaving the door open to the opposite interpretations held by the other.

We are aware that the old liberal universalism has been rejected as requiring essentialist categories—even as “strategic essentialism” has been embraced as the road to justice—but to think and act collectively will require sharing, a crossing out of boundaries, even “strategic” ones. The other is ever and only a representation of the other, the real other is wholly other, so the task of the literature of reconciliation is to comprehend this other in the incomprehensibility in which it presents itself, the other the mystery which we want to comprehend because it is also-I; and if not now, when that other may also include our burning planet, when? Literature imagined as a place for imagined futures, where the other is also-I, where the seen implicates the unseen, is of course nothing new. The photograph of a heron on our cover, taken at Greenbelt Lake, part of Greenbelt, Maryland, one of the three still extant community-owned  “Greenbelt Towns” (the other two Greendale, Wisconsin and Greenhills, Ohio) conceived by FDR in 1935, could be a kind of emblem of the style of the literature of reconciliation, as Erich Auerbach, in Mimesis, called Odysseus’ scar an emblem of the Homeric style. The photograph itself is, of course, mimetic, and renders the idea of reconciliation with the other recognizable, suggesting a plain-to-see sameness amidst conspicuous difference and disfiguration. While photographs depict reality, they are also a reading of reality, mirroring the representations of reality in its eyewitnesses, who provide their own contexts. The green in “Greenbelt towns” referred to their belts of green space, the towns both text and context, not big box places, tens of thousands of which now dot our country where the text and context are the same, but text and context as a presence and a style in the form of a recurring motif for an imagined future—not lifeless, artificial, but letting the encounter with the stranger tell us what the other and the unseen mean, letting ourselves be told, even as we are telling, shown, as we are showing—this the event, this the plot, and on our cover, this the scene implicating the unseen.

As editors of themed issues, questions, not answers, will guide our task, questions of a certain kind—probing for connectedness, and rejecting those that lead to boundary making, generating a form of aesthetic criticism that will require not only the usual perspicacity but a rich and receptive heart that, as for its scholarship, will be inwardly amateur, because beginning in reverence and love will see potentiality, and a horizon, open to a series of revelatory future-facing awakenings where one day the only disqualification will be the act of disqualifying the other, the unseen. We hope to learn how to reject any aesthetics of human disqualification and in pursuing a reconciliatory approach for its own sake, where, instead of boundary drawing, taking note of where the light travels, and following that light, the Mid-Atlantic light, itself also text and context, center and periphery, holding and surrounding the heron of Greenbelt Lake. In the end, a willingness to look for common ground is part of the American imagination, for the only form of imagination that matters, for American literature and the American commons, is moral imagination, the ability, that is, to walk in someone else’s shoes. Our experiment in self-government belongs, in the end, to the world of the human spirit, and with respect to the other, and to the unseen, literature is a way of assembling them, and the depth and power and voice of those assembled materials will always be in inverse proportion to how deeply their lives are buried, that is, how far out of sight. To have a legislator reach across the aisle, creating in himself or herself the other that he or she is seeing, is a heresy now, even though any “vision” that does not include the other labors under the mistake that including the other is inconsistent with moral force when, in fact, it is the very font of moral force. Like literary epiphanies, the other provides an ontological opening: the great legislator, like the great artist interrogates him or herself and knows that while the love of others must be boundless, the love of self is demonstrated in self-criticism, brought into its heresy by the other, the unseen.







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