Monday, March 14, 2005

What We Write and Why

(Collaborative piece that we originally published in Reconstruction V. 3.1 Winter 2003)

Michael Benton, Alan Clinton, Davin Heckman, Subhash Jaireth, Marc Ouellette, and Matthew Wolf-Meyer

"There is neither a first word nor a last word. The contexts of dialogue are without limit. They extend into the deepest past and the most distant future. Even meanings born in dialogues of the remotest past will never be finally grasped once and for all, for they will always be renewed in later dialogue. At any present moment of the dialogue there are great masses of forgotten meanings, but these will be recalled again and again at a given moment in the dialogue's later course when it will be given new life. For nothing is absolutely dead: every meaning will some day have its homecoming festival." (Bhaktin 1979, 170)

I/WE: respons(e)/ibility

"The disobedient reader as writer is no longer a shadow on the text, but rather makes the text a shadow of her own" (Walker 1995, 11).

<1> To ask why we write is also to ask why we read. The pragmatic answer is "to find proof" -- to find proof of like-minded thinkers, to find support for our own arguments, to discover that we are not alone in our thinking, our assumptions and problems. The transcendental answer is "to educate" -- to inspire our own thinking, to see new realities, to uplift ourselves through another writer's use of language. And the middle road: "Because there is a need."

<2> Why do we write what we write? I think the word "we" needs to be replaced by "I" because writing is ultimately a personal quest, although it is also true that all writing is culturally situated in the sense that I/we don't write in a vacuum, and that language which I deploy to write is already given to me/us; to say "I" is to imply "we" and vice versa -- we are always already writing assemblages.

<3> Because of my life experiences I sense that "reality," "truth," and "knowledge" are socially constructed and reflect power structures. At the same time I retain a humanist belief in an individual's abilities to seek out particular truths. I believe, though, that critical consciousness requires one to weigh their own beliefs and challenge them constantly through interaction and dialogue with other theories and belief systems. I still retain a Romanticized belief in the power of intellectual efforts peppered with an existential pessimism concerning the motives of those who have the power to re-present the resulting "truths" and "reality."

<4> There are three words that can be invoked to illuminate the urge that compels me to write. The first word is respons(e)/ibility. It seems that I, like many others who write, situate myself within Socratic tradition according to which our place is also in the Agora and the bazaar, the places from and in which we can participate in the "great" symposium of humanity. By doing this we become the constituents and the constitutors of the public sphere, one of the important features of which -- that which sustains it as public sphere, to borrow Habermas's words -- is democratic and social communication. One of the essential conditions to maintain such communication is to feel responsible to respond, hence the word respons(e)/ibility. I feel responsible to respond to utterances, speaking(s), writing(s) and acting(s) by other participants. The need of a meaningful communication asks from me, to paraphrase one of Bakhtin's central themes, not only to listen and read but also to speak and write. By adding my voice to the cacophony of voices I try to unsettle the power/knowledge relations that operate within [dominate] the public sphere.

Trans/Pan: translation

"Writing is [or can be] a transgression of boundaries, an exploration of new territory. It involves making public the events of our lives, wriggling free of the constraints of purely private and individual experiences. From a state of modest insignificance we enter a space in which we can take ourselves seriously. As an alternative to accepting everyday events mindlessly, we recall them in writing." (Haug 1987, 36)

<5> I write to be human. Learning from Lacan and Derrida, I know that words are never perfect, but all the same there is a kernel of usefulness that enables me to connect with someone else. Whether or not I am doomed through the secular sin of a break with the origin, there persists the desire for community, which enlists perceived similarities for the negotiation of difference -- a return to unity. It is this Burkean notion of rhetoric, which is necessitated by unintelligibility but activated by intelligibility, which animates the spaces of everyday life. The contact between the ambiguous and the unambiguous generates the tactics and practices of making do, which preserves the agency of human existence. Far from the "humanist" prescriptions of the modern era, there is an equally humanist subtext which escapes power in all its forms (science, law, force, rationality) -- a practice of everyday life which is compromised, mobile, mutable -- but always made sane by the desire to love, to build community, to communicate the truth.

<6> The best way to gain the requisite self-awareness of one's own beliefs is to write about them. Once one has gained a conscious understanding of their self (and this must be the first step) then they can begin to use this base as a launching pad to written explorations of the outer-world of "other" individuals, groups, and cultures.

<7> The second word is translation, understood both as "rendering" and "movement." Each time I write, I find myself translating (rendering, moving to and fro) some one else's ideas, concepts, thoughts, and images (the already written, read and seen) into my ideas and images. To a large extent this is because I am confronted with the given-ness of verbal and non-verbal languages. I continually move between langue and parole, between the oral and the written, and vice versa. I continually traverse the routes from the visible (the seen and the shown) to the verbal and vice versa. As if, to use de Certeau's image, I walk and talk at the same time, as if talking/writing would always take me to other places. But writing as translation also tells me that each event of translation is associated with a certain degree of refraction. Like rays of light, ideas, images and thoughts bend, get refracted, change their trajectory. It is, as if, however careful one may not be when one pours water from one jar to another some of it is always spilt.

<8> As a way of mediating between familiar and unfamiliar, writing, in the broadest sense of the word, is an issue of ethical responsibility. It is communication and the context for its reception that generates peace and builds understanding. Learning to communicate, then, is a moral practice that calls writers to approach the truth of clear and honest communication in the most practical sense of the word, even if it is difficult to understand.

<9> It is essential that students, instructors, and theorists resist the pigeonholing process of dogmatic thinking and learn to range across all boundaries/borders, raiding disciplines/movements for useful techniques, using what is at hand when needed, and never fearing (loss of "face," respect, position) to change one's mind when situations and environments prove the present methods inadequate. Perhaps this pedagogical/theoretical parasitism is antithetic to academia? But this stance, this philosophy of writing, is essentially a call for new modes of meaning-making and transdisciplinary sharing in order to track a constantly changing and complex era.

<10> Writing is teaching, reading an education. The best writers are not those who have to prove a point (how good of a writer he or she is), but rather those who can enlighten a reader. The best writers are those who see beyond themselves, see beyond their success, and can perceive the success of their students, of their readers. No writing should be done for the pure satisfaction of the author (although this should not discredit writing); writing should always be done for the satisfaction of a nebulous audience - whoever the author decides it should be. And it should be written to bring out the best in -- to educate -- that audience, to inspire them to think, to change, to write. If the world writes, and if the world reads, maybe we can make use of the Information Age after all...

Return: reflexive

"Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it."
---Bertolt Brecht.

"I'm just looking for one divine hammer … I'll bang it all day long."
---Breeders "Divine Hammer" (1993).

<11> Oftentimes we repress our motives to such an extent -- for reasons of efficiency, self-protection, or otherwise -- that they become completely invisible to us. We may even consider "motivation" beside the point and, denying our own crimes, something only applicable to criminals. In the case of professional activities, we may delegate motivational responsibility to the profession itself -- the scientific method, the Hippocratic oath, the Grand Directive. If Nietzsche is to be believed, however, all of our activities can be interpreted as confessions, as "unacknowledged autobiography." Whether or not this is true in all cases, it would seem a fruitful exercise to take Nietzsche at his word, to look for the confessional elements in our most impersonal-seeming endeavors.

<12> The third word is reflexive. Metaphorically it means to be able to carry a mirror that would make the bearer aware of the world behind him/her, the cultural and cognitive topography of one's location, which on the one hand helps one to say what she/he want to say but simultaneously limits what can be said. It also means that one is always interrogating his/her own project. This interrogation of what one has written and is in the process of writing doesn't have to be outside the writing. The writing, the text, has to make the reader conscious of this reflexive, the sideways, glance by foregrounding it. Preference, then, should be for writing that reflects the anxiety, the tension and the unsettledness of writing.

<13> Too often academics, especially in the Humanities, receive criticism for being insulated from and even disinterested in the so-called "real world." Saying "I don't know" cannot and should not be a sign of ignorance or weakness. Yet many of us live in fear of being "exposed." Every semester I see posters and receive emails for workshops promising to help instructors overcome "imposter syndrome" in the classroom. The self-help mantra of afternoon Talk TV meets academia albeit in the wrong direction. In the Humanities we have to try to prove the validity and the applicability of the seemingly esoteric work we do. Even Northrop Frye spent most of his career trying to elevate (the study of) literature to the level of a sacrament so that it stopped being a frivolous pursuit. In many jurisdictions there is an ongoing war on teaching, especially at the secondary and post-secondary levels. Teachers and professors are portrayed as lacking in ambition or usefulness. The credibility of educators is constantly compromised by budget-cutting beancounters who see tenure as the refuge of the inept. Understandably, teachers feel threatened when confronted with the prospect of what they do not know. Admitting that one does not know is admitting that "those who can't do, teach." Educators have been facing this cheap slight for years, but we must face the reality that even academics work in a world which measures respect in dollars and cents -- i.e., my research grant is bigger than your research grant, my publications are more prestigious than yours, etc.

<14> Looking over what's been written, note that the writing grows progressively more interesting in its exactness and less useful to a general audience, for no one who is reading this journal is able to live our childhoods, nor can we live each other's. It is the dilemma of fascination, what Lacan noted of his seminar on "The Purloined Letter": "For I often say to you very difficult things, and I see you hanging on every word, and I learn later that you did not understand. On the other hand, when one tells you simple things, almost too familiar, you are less attentive. I just make this remark in passing, which has its interest like any concrete observation. I leave it for your meditation." And I do the same.

The cutting room floor:

<15> With my own students I try to maintain the balance of being intellectually challenging with being personally approachable. For me, this is related to the balance between theory and practice, but it all goes back to the basic concept of admitting what I do not know rather than showing off what I do know. A past course I worked on had two main themes: the relationship between mass culture and popular culture and the relationship between resistance and hegemony. Ultimately, these relationships boil down to one: the need to be an individual vs. the need to belong. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer summarizes the paradox perfectly when his friend Hermie, the elf dentist, explains the concept of independence to the young buck. Rudolph responds, "Let's be independent together!" I see this as the ruling paradox of popular culture, but that doesn't solve anything. Recognizing this much is just being clever about being clever. What I want to know, and probably won't ever know, is when, how, and why does a learned behavior, like the paradox of independence, become an instinctive response.

<16> Every user of language has to negotiate its given-ness to satisfy the contingencies of our projects.

"Also, I think it has to do with being part of the TV generation, and as a group we were much more visually literate in a certain kind of way than the previous generation, not necessarily in terms of quality, but certainly in terms of quantity. And that sort of sheer mass of data required a different sense of the politics of seeing, and for the people I know, I think the politics of seeing is a more key issue than the art of vision." (Wees 1993, 90-91)

Works Cited

Bakhtin, M.M. (1986) "Methodology for the Human Sciences," Speech Genres and Other Late Essays, trans. Vern W. McGee, ed. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: U of Texas Press.

Haug, Frigga, et al. (1987) "Memory-Work as Social Science Writing." Female Sexualization: A Collective Work of Memory. trans. Erica Carter. NY: Verso.

Walker, Nancy. (1995) The Disobedient Writer: Women and Narrative Tradition. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Wees, William C. (1993) Recycled Images: The Art and Politics of Found Footage Films. NY: Anthology Film Archives.

No comments: