The modern use of the English verb ‘to err’ seems to have lost all positive connotations. It no longer invokes wandering, rambling, or roaming, and is now mainly understood negatively in relation to a prescribed path or goal. To be sure, errors play an important role in the pursuit of knowledge and happiness, but usually only to the extent that their recognition allows for their elimination, correction, and avoidance. Deviations and failures thus confirm the norm and the proverb ‘errare humanum est’ does not imply a valourization of erring, but rather a humbling of humanity joined with the warning – which no longer needs to be stated explicitly – that to persevere in erring is a mark of stupidity, insanity, or evil.
And yet, the case can and has been made for a radical affirmation of erring as the necessary condition not only for humanity but for life and history. Michel Foucault, for instance, notes in reference to the epistemologist Georges Canguilhem, whom he calls a ‘philosopher of error’, that ‘life is what is capable of error’ and that ‘error is at the root of what makes human thought and its history’. An infallible adherence to norms and laws can indeed appear inhuman, like a lifeless mechanism incapable of any novelty. However, embracing error remains a challenging and paradoxical thought, unless one keeps the meaning of ‘erring’ as a directionless wandering governed by chance rather than efficient or final causes. This older meaning is still present in the notions of ‘errantry’ or ‘errance’ that Canguilhem in fact conjectures to be one with human error.
The notion of errantry relates to the kind of radical questioning, deconstruction, and making fluid of fixed norms, identities, and goals that – since the last third of the 20th century at least – has affirmed mobility, process, and becoming without aim or substance. It resonates, for instance, with strategies of queering and with feminist figurations of nomadic subjects (Rosi Braidotti), and the term explicitly enters Édouard Glissant’s postcolonial interpretation of rhyzomatic thought for a philosophy and poetics of relations.
At the same time, affirming mere movement remains perhaps necessarily ambiguous when one asks about its causes and effects. How can one ascertain that erring does not remain tied to a preoccupation with lack, existential rootlessness, truth, or authentic being? To what extent does the possibility of utility or productivity by serendipity re-inscribe a normative teleology? While erring may have no goal, it may still find its end, which – rather than offering a viable incommensurable alternative – may get integrated in a history of progress or relegated to insignificance if not extinction. With hindsight, erring indeed seems all-too suited for the new norms of flexibility in post-Fordist neo-liberalism: it is consistent with a logic of trial and error, which promotes precarious errantry with the expectation that some will succeed and energize the economy, while the necessary failure of the many is absorbed through an ideology of hope and deferral or through (inner) emigration. Moreover, it is uncertain how well errantry can succeed in fully extricating itself from the logic not only of expansive exploration but also of colonization and its consequences of forced displacement and hybridization.
The recent interest in affirming failure and negating the future can be understood as a response to these concerns: it points towards a more radical affirmation of error than via errantry. Keeping teleological norms in plain view and confronting them head-on safeguards against co-optation and feeding into cruel optimism (Lauren Berlant). However, to what extent does this produce a dead end without escape, foreclosing possibilities of chancing upon the unexpected or of valuing the very movement of erring?
Recognizing that a critique of ideals of productivity, success, goal-orientation, and determination is necessarily paradoxical, the first two years of the core project ERRANS has taken the shifting meanings of ‘erring’ – connoting the violation of norms as well as the activity of wandering – as a starting point to explore the critical potentials and risks of embracing error, randomness, failure, and non-teleological temporalities across different disciplines and discourses.