An anonymous submission from someone who appears to have deleted their hotmail address immediately after sending. May well be a masterpiece. Wait, it has the line “We speak of such, and yet in doing so we do not speak.” Definitely a ‘piece.
For Better or for Worst: The Im/possible Quest for a Definition
Is it the case that in considering the worst we also implicitly consider the best? If so, then in considering the best we likewise return to consideration of the worst. Comparative categories form the most readily evident case of how categories of any kind are neither singular nor self-sufficient. McDonald (2007) describes the raison d’être of his website, The Worst of Perth, as its “essence,” and in doing so seemingly avers that the worst does indeed possess an essence. Closer examination of the examples McDonald provides in defence of this notion—“the world’s worst paintings,” “eggs derelict,” and so on—at least partly indicate the uncertain if not to say elastic nature of the worst. There are after all many things at which we point, saying “this is that,” with only the vaguest notion of how the “this” in question is to be included within existing categorial structures. Essence is the very opposite to such conceptual dispersal; it is the this-ness of the “this”—that without which whichever this in question cannot be the particular this that it is. Thus it is that we come to the very im/possibility of essence.
We are unable to speak of the essence of worst because there is no such essence. We speak of such, and yet in doing so we do not speak. Rather, tongues wag, fingers type; we become the ventriloquistic conduits of empty words; emptying the already empty, as though turning out a sow’s ear in a hopeful yet futile search for some last comforting centime of quiddity. It may be more profitable to think of best and worst as two sides of a single coin. Then it is as though we could understand the coin itself as somehow separate from its instantiation as either best or worst. However, there is no logical space between instantiation and instantiated in this case; there is no uniquely objective view from nowhere from which one could say, in accordance with some putatively final analysis, that the coin in the end spins to the tune of either of its two sides. If one were to efface each side, in search of the nature of the coin itself, then the coin would cease to have value, in effect disappearing, for it is only through inscription that the coin bears value, or rather a precise value, which is to say any value at all. There is no way to arrive at a singular definition of worst. Rather, the two sides of our spinning coin will oscillate into an infinity of undecideablity.
And yet the definitional battle goes on. We say “battle,” not forgetting how etymology teaches us that “worst” is related to “war.” Indeed, we continue to occasionally say that we have “bested” an opponent, that an opponent has been “worsted” by us. A question presents itself here: Do we worst our surroundings in an attempt to best them, to contend with them, in an perhaps endlessly ironic gesture particular to those with eyes to see, sensitive enough to feel the world’s many stings? Perth is worsted, yet what is to say that this gesture amounts to little more than wool-gathering? Lasch (1979) states that in contemporary society, “anxious self-scrutiny … establishes an ironic distance from the deadly routine of daily life.” Accordingly, the ironist “takes refuge in jokes, mockery, and cynicism…. [H]e conveys to himself and others the impression that he has risen beyond it.” But Lasch is far from approving of such a stance, instead arguing that this ironic distance vitiates our sense of connection with others, ourselves, and with the world. And yet as Derrida (1967) nearly said, “to grasp the operation of [the worst] at the greatest possible proximity to it, one must turn oneself to the invisible interior of voyeuristic freedom.” Through the embrace of such freedom we become theoreticians, spectators, and perhaps only then capable of clearly grasping the worst. A community of invisible arbiters emerges from out of this at first solipsistic interiority: worsting and besting; besting and worsting. However, whatever essence we find in detachment quickly degrades, once communicated, from the apparent clarity and certainty of private thought into the tawdry currency of second-hand words and opinions. The very detachment of which we speak in any case precludes the theoretician’s right to judge. If all judgement is hence illegitimate, then in what sense may we in turn speak of worse or worst?
There is perhaps another means of tackling our conundrum. Speaking of the worst of invites speculation as to whether we have truly plumbed the depths of worstness. Is there some non plus ultra of worst, already attained or still lying in wait? Looked at this way the worst ceases to act as a comparative category, marking rather the limit of decency, taste, or even thought. As Schopenhauer (1818) argued, this is the worst of all possible worlds. The world could not be worse without ceasing to exist; which state of affairs, Schopenhauer pessimistically asserted, would in fact constitute a significant improvement. If this world is worst, worse even than non-existence, then one is surely entitled to state: il n’y a pas de hors-worst. The reason for our difficulty in essentialising the worst becomes evident at this point: the worst is conterminous with the world, and the world, as the horizon of all things, is ungraspable, unspeakable, with the worst necessarily sharing in this unspeakability. In attempting to so speak, we merely gesture at the ground of possibility of all such assertions, relinquishing our quest for the essence of worst just as we realize, as though any such terms were truly distinct, that we have substituted the comparative for the superlative, immanence for transcendence—vive le worst!