Central vs cutting edge

It’s better to be cutting edge than central. Change comes from the margins, anyway.

The centre is always disturbed by the restlessness in the margin. The system breathes because the outside breaks in. The light gets through the cracks, which are also edges of the solid surface.

Take medieval manuscripts. In medieval philosophy, theology, science and literary scholarship, knowledge expanded through dialogue between the centre and the margin. This is more than a metaphor about conservatism and innovation, orthodoxy and daring transgression. It is first and foremost a material thing : in all of these disciplines, the model was that of a master text submitted to an encircling commentary. Again, no metaphor here. The master text stood written in the centre of the manuscript page, while layers of commentaries surrounded it, filing the space in the margin. This was the written model of formal education and private study.

In the long run, the margin always wins. By winning, it takes centre page and awaits a new generation of marginal interpretations to challenge it in open, naked dialogue.

To be cutting edge is to dare to sit in the outer margin, in small, inconspicuous script, like the feeble words surrounding the majesty of the master text. The change happens in transcription, and the transmission of texts in manuscript, unlike the mechanical reproduction of print, makes it possible for the marginal text to approach the centre.

The most radically intellectual ideas of the Middle Ages started as notes in the margin. The commentary is a new way to understand the master text until it becomes a new way to understand. Then it becomes the master text.

In the long run, the margin wins by slowly eroding the master text. The erosion starts in the margins, where the cutting edge cuts a new way through.


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