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What Is Aporia?


Question: What Is Aporia?

As defined in our glossary, aporia is a figure of speech in which the speaker expresses real or simulated doubt or perplexity.

In classical rhetoric, aporia means placing a claim in doubt by developing arguments on both sides of an issue. In the terminology of deconstruction, aporia is a final impasse or paradox--the site at which the text most obviously undermines its own rhetorical structure, dismantles, or deconstructs itself.

Let's look at three examples of aporia--from Shakespeare's Hamlet, Samuel Beckett's novel The Unnamable, and our favorite animated father, Homer Simpson.

Hamlet's Aporia

The most famous example of aporia in English literature is Hamlet's "To be or not to be" soliloquy in Shakespeare's great tragedy. The opening question introduces the fundamental uncertainty that characterizes the passage as a whole:

To be, or not to be: that is the question.
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, 'tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish'd. To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there's the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law's delay,
The insolence of office and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover'd country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.
(William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act III, scene 1)

Aporia in Beckett's The Unnamable

A more contemporary author whose entire body of work is characterized by aporia is the 20th-century Irish playwright and novelist Samuel Beckett. Consider the opening paragraph of his novel The Unnamable (1959):

Where now? Who now? When now? Unquestioning. I, say I. Unbelieving. Questions, hypotheses, call them that. Keep going, going on, call that going, call that on. Can it be that one day, off it goes on, that one day I simply stayed in, in where, instead of going out, in the old way, out to spend day and night as far away as possible, it wasn't far. Perhaps that is how it began. You think you are simply resting, the better to act when the time comes, or for no reason, and you soon find yourself powerless ever to do anything again. No matter how it happened. It, say it, not knowing what. Perhaps I simply assented at last to an old thing. But I did nothing. I seem to speak, it is not I, about me, it is not about me. These few general remarks to begin with. What am I to do, what shall I do, what should I do, in my situation, how proceed? By aporia pure and simple? Or by affirmations and negations invalidated as uttered, or sooner or later? Generally speaking. There must be other shifts. Otherwise it would be quite hopeless. But it is quite hopeless. I should mention before going any further, any further on, that I say aporia without knowing what it means. Can one be ephetic otherwise than unawares? I don't know.
Who and where is the narrator? Is he alive or dead? Such fundamental questions are never answered in Beckett's challenging comic text. As David Lodge has written in The Art of Fiction (1993), "Aporia is a favorite trope of deconstructionist critics, because it epitomizes the way in which all texts undermine their own claims to a determinate meaning."

Homer Simpson's Aporia

Aporia is just one of the terms that might be used to describe Homer Simpson's typically baffled state of mind. Here's an example from around the Simpsons' breakfast table:
Homer: Marge? Since I'm not talking to Lisa, would you please ask her to pass me the syrup?
Marge: Dear, please pass your father the syrup, Lisa.
Lisa: Bart, tell Dad I will only pass the syrup if it won't be used on any meat product.
Bart: You dunkin' your sausages in that syrup homeboy?
Homer: Marge, tell Bart I just want to drink a nice glass of syrup like I do every morning.
Marge: Tell him yourself, you're ignoring Lisa, not Bart.
Homer: Bart, thank your mother for pointing that out.
Marge: Homer, you're not not-talking to me and secondly I heard what you said.
Homer: Lisa, tell your mother to get off my case.
Bart: Uhhh, dad, Lisa's the one you're not talking to.
Homer: Bart, go to your room.

In classical rhetoric, aporia is usually a deliberate strategy that serves a useful purpose. In Plato's dialogues, for instance, Socrates often uses ignorance or uncertainty as a mask. His expressions of doubt fool opponents into thinking, at least momentarily, that they have the upper-hand.

In Homer Simpson's case, however, expressions of doubt or uncertainty usually reveal just one thing: Homer is genuinely perplexed.

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