Seeing xings, or why I write about transparency

isaiah a. hines

Not only is the nature of glass clear yet amorphous, but so, the poet seems to say, is the nature of identity and of poetry itself.

Samuel Ace

When I learn the fundamental difference between liquids and solids is not structural, but dynamic—a matter of responding to stress—already, I am changed. More on this in a moment. “Xin,” in the philosophy of Confucius, refers to the quality of keeping one’s word; of being faithful. When translated into Western languages like English, its meaning becoming alloyed, it has also meant “mind,” “heart,” “consciousness,” “intentions,” “thoughts,” and notions of the Absolute (mind).​*​

Xin is regarded as an indispensable virtue because without the alchemy of believing and trusting, survival would hardly be possible. Consider the faith required of a person to perform a speech act, or for that matter, any act of communication. When we do language the line between figuration and abstraction goes live, becoming electric—deadly, yet generative. The words cannot do all the work we ask of them. The assurance we’d like to give our listener or reader is unable to be delivered. We are not always able to land, or take root. And yet, still, we try anyway.

How can what was missing reveal something about that which is present? How might a person with a formal thought disorder participate in a philosophical thought experiment? And why can’t we see each other more clearly? Read together, the scholarly writings of Anita L. Allen and Denise Ferreira da Silva permit the asking of these questions, and more. I share with these thinkers a commitment to black people globally and a concern with how we act and are acted upon by others.

One of the reasons I engage in such crossings is my once-disabling obsession with the threat of such tensions as the line between visibility that empowers and exposure that exploits. Strangely, struggles with/against (self)destructive responses to stress, confabulations with psychosis and suicidality, and a suspension and later decision to drop out of Columbia University are as responsible for my deep commitment to rethinking ethics and morality as anything, becoming catalysts for the precise metamorphoses that have made me. Made and unmade.

Taking seriously the gap between the world and what can be said about it has led me to think hard about the relationship between language and that which we call the self, the basic unit of personality and personal identity.​†​ This writing is, among other things, an attempt to reckon with my dissatisfaction with popular accounts of identity and truth—in it, I reimagine a lineage of thinkers who’ve made possible my reconsideration of the usefulness of transparency as an ethical syntax or foundation for morality.

Our modern scene’s demands​‡​ for transparency ultimately amount to a restatement of white supremacy’s mythemes. The language of transparency claims to present a linear path to moral enlightenment, a claim which rests upon a logic that divides information (and people) into neat, knowable categories. Taking up questions raised in the work of Ferreira da Silva and Allen, whose rigorous, spirited forays question and dissolve the legitimation of “transparency” as a unitary construct, I’ve begun to build a practice of writing that can contend with the impacts of coloniality, racialization, and technologization on modern conceptions of ethics and relation.

Contemporary concerns about the lack of correspondence between what is said, and what is, should be taken seriously and alternatives should be sought. Though, how can this be done without simply reifying the spectacularly vicious fictions of the white imagination? The lenses and paradigms through which we understand and make the world are seriously strained. The weight of ceaseless sense-making, value-assigning tasks, and the ever-present threats of essentialism, reductionism, and erasure, are more than language or self can bear.

Going beyond explanation to reveal something about what it is to be alive, black, feminist writers and scholars of language and cultural politics are making new thinking and new grounds for questioning in real-time response to exhausted landscapes of truth and faith, reality and reason. And we’re doing so with critical intellect and profound nuance, both reference and reverence. The aspiration toward what lies after language is a repeating theme in my writing, reading, and life. 

My concern is that routines of transparency do little more than protect their referent from criticism. How clear can I make myself? And what does it take to be deemed worthy of trust? For transparency to do its work, we must first have faith that our representational systems afford a vital indexicality. This faith is found even in postmodern critical analyses that challenge transparency, thereby reproducing the post-Enlightenment version of the subject.​§​ How can it simultaneously feel that a kind of faith (xin) is being lost while another form of faith (one based in modern aesthetic culture) prevails?

What is assumed but not explicitly stated in popular discourse on the morality of transparency is that mythologized access to “raw reality” will somehow save us from our own gaps in logic and ethical plot holes. Seeing through this, the post-disciplinary work of theorist Trinh T. Minh-ha reminds us that when “truth is produced, induced, and extended according to the regime in power,” the opportunity to discover something new and previously hidden, then “lies in between all regimes of truth.”​¶​

What if transparency could mean a willingness to surrender or refuse the mechanisms of legitimation and authority? I wonder, what are the effects, virtual and actual, of modern literacies on the physical body and the self? I desire a future in which the idea of transparency is no longer charged with “authentically” or even “truthfully” representing its subject, but rather authorized to assemble a mediation of the very being of its subject—one that perhaps disrupts hegemonic and oppressive spatiotemporal configurations.

I am interested in what it would mean to withhold the equation of value until the matter’s response is complete; thereby infinitely delaying meaning from coming to a close at either what is said, or shown, for the purpose of living better in togetherness. Our understandings of reality, and ethicality itself, are stressed and nearing breakage. I write about transparency because to do so is to become more precise, beautiful, and more truthful​#​ with what we mean when we use the term.

Writing is constant negotiations. That’s why it’s exhausting, not unlike thinking. I have often exhausted myself with thinking. As a poet, I care about the degree and nature of the correspondence between what we say, what we think, and how we move. Not in a way of assigning inherent or fixed values to these arrangements but instead to notice the constructedness of it. For if it was built, it can be taken down.

Redirect attention toward what can already be done, what has already occurred, is still occurring. Let it change you. Already, you are changed. To attune yourself to a subterranean or neglected politics, to listen at a lower frequency and listen for the deeper stories of people and things. Why and how does blackness have the capacity to apply stress on our post-Enlightenment moral framework?

When we adopt transparency as a virtue without considering the impossibility of ever fully “mapping the mind,” we risk forgetting that the mirror is a questioning​**​ and reflection alone is not truth. To elucidate the point that I am making here, that performing transparency often entails a forgetting of oneself that functions in opposition to its presumed moral logic, we might remind ourselves of the role that competing conceptions of the self play in its capacity to be forgotten.​††​

            Transparency is a crossing—a leitmotif—an interval of power, politics, and faith. In our increasingly discursive, multiplicitous reality, the distinction between what is and what is not must constantly be restated. My obsession with transparent things and the precarious interplay of visibility, invisibility, and hypervisibility is motivated by a preoccupation with the fundamental instability or undecidability of our world.

The critical importance of xin can be made apparent by way of reflection on the role of uncertainty in the construction of modernity and the quotidian implications of the worldview inaugurated by Bell’s theorem. For m/any of us, tomorrow is not guaranteed. Neither is the next nanosecond. At any point, reality might collapse under its own weight. But faith. My mad black gay life is a proof that demonstrates simply to live is to experience incalculable amounts of pressure. To my mind, xin is precisely that which permits life and information, and its power or total force is in catalyzing these foundational questions of importance and worth.

Xin, at its heart, is a path to remembering oneself, becoming especially crucial in a culture that constantly asks us to forget ourselves. We need such a discerning faith for us to prevail against compounding crises of clarity, communication, and relation we are faced with.

More and more, we are asked to re-present ourselves as clearly as possible, lured by high-speed, high-volume digital technologies that promote self-documentation in order to provide personalized services and curated information. If reality can only be grasped paradoxically, through oblique layerings of scenes with degrees of truth and differential meanings, then our need for different and better ways of knowing and remembering ourselves is palpable as ever.

There is no such thing as clarity. Like documentary, perhaps clarity and transparency are best understood as problems of grammar—of relation, attention, and politics—or as a matter of responding to stress. We must, each and all of us, find our breaking point, or turning point, at which a change in state is triggered. And we must do it all the time. This will be different for each individual due to unique chemical and structural compositions and unpredictable trajectories of macro (conscious) and micro (quantum) movements/phenomena. That is the fundamental difference.

I do not intend to assign moral value to my entanglements with public and private institutions of higher education or even to clearly explain my choices. Instead, I have tried here to approach my experiences of forgetting and remembering my self. I’ve tried to trace my thinking around faith, belief, trust, and truth, though I have not really been successful in doing so. Thinking goes on. There is still much more to be said. More than can be said.

As a teenager and now as a young adult, I have learned about vexed performances of scientific uncertainty, discovered my love for the small dramas of words and bodies, and questioned ethico-juridical constructions of insularity and blackness. When we use the term “transparency,” do we mean the stressed space where nonlocal knowledge emerges or do we refer to a repository of completely categorized cataloged worlds? Where and how we locate transparency in the ethical and moral landscape is indicative of a substantive and interspective difference. I’m always searching for this shifting and unpredictable point of departure, or entry. Transparency, like all language, is in our hands. What we choose to do with it, and whether we do it or are done by it, is a matter of responding to untold stress. What I do is commune and conspire with this impossible calculus, searching for a perfectness of connexion, of crossing, that may never actually be reached.

Works Cited

Allen, Anita L. “Forgetting Yourself.” Diana T. Meyers (ed.), Feminists Rethink the Self. Westview Press, 1997, pp.

Benická, Jana. “Mind or Heart? On Translating the Character Xin in Chinese Buddhist

Mahāyāna Texts into Western Languages.” Asian and African Studies, Vol. 12, 2003, No. 2, pp. 148-157.

Danner, Margaret Esse. The down of a thistle: Selected poems, prose poems, and songs.

Waukesha, Wisconsin : Country Beautiful, 1976.

Ferreira da Silva, Denise. “The Transparency Thesis.” Toward a Global Idea of Race. University of Minnesota Press, 2007,

Jordan, June. (1969). “Black Studies: Bringing Back the Person.” CIVIL WARS. Boston : Beacon Press.

Minh-Ha, Trinh T. “Documentary Is/Not a Name.” October, vol. 52, 1990, p. 76–,

  1. ​*​
    Benická, Jana. (2003). “Mind or Heart? On Translating the Character Xin in Chinese Buddhist Mahāyāna Texts into Western Languages.” Asian and African Studies, Vol. 12, No. 2, p. 148.
  2. ​†​
    [1] Allen, Anita L. “Forgetting Yourself.” Diana T. Meyers (ed.), Feminists Rethink the Self. Westview Press, 1997, p. 104.
  3. ​‡​
    Danner, Margaret E. (1976). The down of a thistle: Selected poems, prose poems, and songs. Waukesha, Wisconsin : Country Beautiful. 41.
  4. ​§​
    Ferreira da Silva, Denise. “The Transparency Thesis.” Toward a Global Idea of Race. University of Minnesota Press, 2007, p. 3.
  5. ​¶​
    Minh-ha, Trinh T. (1990). “Documentary Is/Not a Name. The MIT Press. October, Vol. 52, p. 76.
  6. ​#​
    June Jordan is quoted as saying, “To tell the truth is to become beautiful, to begin to love yourself, value yourself. And that’s political, in its most profound way.” Source unknown.
  7. ​**​
    Jordan, June. (1969). “Black Studies: Bringing Back the Person.” CIVIL WARS. Beacon Press : Boston.
  8. ​††​
    Allen, Anita L. “Forgetting Yourself.” Diana T. Meyers (ed.), Feminists Rethink the Self. Westview Press, 1997, p. 104