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Exiles are the first to know
Where the world ends.
      Diana Engelmann, Contrapasso

 

"Atopon" is a Greek word with a range of connotations. It means to feel out of place and so is a geographical or spatial metaphor of disorientation. It also refers to a mental state ("topos" is not only a place but a topic for reflection). One feels confused by what makes no sense. As such it is a temporal metaphor as well: "time out of joint."

 

Hans-Georg Gadamer associated the term with a stumbling and even stuttering in the face of "that which does not 'fit' into the customary order of our expectations based on experience." He saw in this hesitation about the rightness or the felicity of our beliefs and presuppositions—our "prejudices"—a stage in a process of coming to better understand (and situate) both ourselves and others in a shared world of deeper agreement. This stage was akin for Gadamer to that "wonder" which for Plato was the "beginning of knowledge."

"Atopon" suggests as well the word "uncanny," which for Freud did not simply designate an experience of that which is strange to us or even an estrangement from what is familiar. It was an experience of the familiar becoming strange, a moment in which our habitual (or customary) way of proceeding or presuming things to be itself strikes us as the strange thing. Such a moment involves a perspectival shift, when what we see ( a duck, say) changes into something else (a rabbit) without itself changing at all.

 

Stanley Cavell, while he did not use the word "atopon," had this perspectival shift in mind with what he called the "threat of skepticism," by which he meant an uncertainty amounting even to despair about the possibilities of knowing either things in the world or other minds. As overwhelming as this threat might be for a person, it can also precipitate a further experience of self-transcendence—Cavell's word was "self-overcoming"—that opens us to different ways of seeing and a more intuitive engagement with the world.

"Atopon" can also refer to crisis in the sense of there being a world. This word "world" implies a ground on which we stand and from which we operate; it also implies a horizon toward which we tend or aim with a feeling of anticipation. World crisis thus entails losing a proximate semantic-perceptual locus from which a past (or a tradition) seems secure and a future in sight. We are living today through an era of globalization in which the world becomes available for us (some of us) as never before, but also in which we (others of us) fall away from secure belonging and identity into states of displacement, deracination, precarity, and hopelessness. It can be argued—perhaps it must be argued—that the latter experience makes the former just as much a symptom of one underlying condition of "worldlessness" that philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy characterized as an indefinite extension of market rationality, techno-science, and spectacle—all of which for him hinged on an ambition to get outside the world, to put into perspective (as in a picture or a representation) what can never actually be "in front of us" if it is to be "our world." In this context of a totalizing modernity, he wrote, "The world has lost its capacity to 'form a world': it seems only to have gained the capacity of proliferating, to the extent of its means, the 'unworld'...which, until now...has never in history impacted the totality of the orb to such an extent. In the end, everything takes place as if the world affected and permeated itself with a death drive that soon would have nothing else to destroy than the world itself." This paradox of a self-destroying world is plain enough both for immigrants and refugees forced by war, economic hardship, or climate disruption to leave their native land and for those whose native land is little more than a non-place in which they are trapped. For its cosmopolitan elites we might put the problem otherwise, with Gang of Four: "At home s/he feels like a tourist."

    

Atopon Books, a non-profit press, seeks to publish work that resonates with these various connotations of its name in this time of global crisis. There is no particular way for this resonance to happen; though we focus on poetry and literary fiction, we are open to work that is harder to classify, that falls out of or between genres, norms, conventions, and orthodoxies. What matters is engagement with a world that reveals itself when we catch ourselves out in even our (its) most spontaneous ideological habits of heart and mind. If you think you have work that "fits" within this orbit of demystifying moral as well as aesthetic concern, feel free to contact us with a query letter that briefly describes your project and we will consider including it in our growing list.  

Gadamer on Language and Understanding (1970)

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