Monday, 29 December 2014

The interruptions of handwriting

One of the commonly held assumptions (especially among impatient readers) is that texts are fluid, continuous. This is a belief that expects a text to present itself like a cake from which no piece has been cut yet – and more importantly, expects that cake to remain as such forever.

The theory of the solidity of texts, however, proves to be unsatisfying. This continuity, this smooth unfolding, is not exactly what a text is made of, and neither is it something the text is aiming for. On the contrary, as already hinted last week, the fundamental component of a text is its discontinuity. And, as I will hope to show today and, maybe, next week, this discontinuity is apparent at almost all levels of a text’s constitution.

Patterns, repetitions

To start with (and this, again, might require a rereading of last week’s post), the formation of a text presupposes an interruption of one’s biological awareness. Writers often make reference to this ‘forgetting of the self,’ which is in essence a forgetting of body and of bodily functions. Writing is, as such, a redistribution (along different spatial-temporal coordinates) of the body.  Michel Foucault suggested that, while writing, the body becomes a launching pad and, at the same time, a hiding place for the subject who writes. But in order for this to happen, writing must mark a break from habitual (i.e. overlooked) occurrences in one’s life.
To write is to cease living.
This cessation is one form of interruption apparent in relation to writing but certainly not the only one. In order to see the other interruptions, we need to regard writing in a particular way: we need to look at it from the perspective of patterns. Patterns presuppose repetitiveness. And repetition presupposes finite objects, i.e. objects with a beginning and an end. I stress the end because, as is very easy to observe, an interruption makes apparent this finality, this endness of things. In a repetitive pattern, the fact that objects end is crucial.
In writing, one uses the patterned distribution of letters. This means, every occurrence of a given letter is a repetition of the archetype of the sign that represents it. This is why we are able to recognize that letter and, consequently, read the given text.

Print script

Printed writing, which is the style of penmanship where all letters are written in a non-conjoined manner, is a clear illustration of what I mean here. In printing, one executes strokes that mark the independence of signs and, therefore, their limitness – their ability to stop and come after each other.
A note of caution: let us not be misled by the other model of penmanship, the so-called cursive. The effort put into linking the letters together only perpetuates the myth of the continuity of writing. By making the letters touch each other, one hopes to achieve the illusion of writing’s connectivity, an illusion with roots deep into the misconception about the ability of writing to generate order (of the sequential type, in this case) in the disorder of the world.

Script on a clay amulet from Tărtăria. Source: Wikipedia
In this respect, the earliest forms of writing were more ‘honest,’ closer to the truth of the matter. Cuneiforms, Hieroglyphics, Chinese ideograms, Greek and Roman Letters, or even older systems, such as the ones discovered at Vinča (Serbia), or Tărtăria (Romania), dating back to the Neolithic period – all of the above give signs their due: their independence from each other, their separateness. There, signs are units of meaning designed to represent units of the world; one for one. And there is no fooling about, no pretense of continuity. It is as though at that ‘early’ stage there was still hope for reconciliation, or at least some awareness of the former (i.e. pre ‘madness of signification’) structural match between objects and signs.

Joint-up writing

Cursive scripts, on the contrary, bring up the issue of the radical difference between man and world, between systems of notation and the materiality of Being. With them, the possibility of misrepresentation is given a face. To be noted, at the same time, that basic writing systems that employ continuous script, like the Arabic and some other Abjads, are late comers to the feast of writing. They became active at a time where the erosion of the relationship between world and sign had already been tested and amplified.
(The material support may also be of interest here, although some closer examination of the history of writing systems could be required to understand the dynamics of the move from stone and clay to leather and paper.)
Most importantly, thought, cursive writing developed along with the polishing of official records. In Bengali, the cursive script is also known as “professional writing,” and that should say it all. Not only did this type of notation indicate a need for officials to keep record, it also indicates a need, pointed out by researchers, to shorten the process of writing. At this stage, one could say that the emphasis is moved from the representation of the world to the management of the sign. Efficiency of inscription appears to be a manifestation of the drive to be done with it as quickly as possible. The world as such appears to have fallen onto a secondary place.

A sample of cursive script: the writing of office. Source: Wikipedia
The same thing may be said about the most common European version of this cursive writing, the so-called “chancery hand.” It was developed in the thirteenth century by the Chancery of Apostolic Brief (Cancelleria Apostolica), whose initial main purpose was to collect money used to maintain papal armies, later turned into the collection of money for the support of missionary work. Once again, the official role of cursive writing is impossible to miss. Its use for business transactions makes it a very practical form of notation.

The way towards modernity

Of course, the pedantic historian of writing will find other, possibly more refined, possibly better suited, examples of this cursive mode, but the major point here is the relevance of the cursive to the languages and practices of office.
The cursive appears to be the imposition of economy upon writing. With it, writing starts being regarded as an economic entity, a tool of the trade, a means of production. Production of signs relevant to economic transactions. Signs which, as abstractions, are increasingly present in economic systems based on speculation. The cursive letter is, therefore, the way towards modernity: towards a completely abstract manipulation of the world, whether for economic, political, or cultural purposes.
The cursive letter is a bargain: the budget version of writing. With it, the spatial proximity of letters is employed to impose a different kind of order upon the dangerously independent form of the print script. And at the same time, the separation of sign and world becomes harder to spot. This is a phenomenon made apparent most dramatically with the establishment of semiotics. A scientific system for the explanation of signs and signification was necessary to make us aware of how the world has always been represented – something we should have been aware of anyway, if we’d remained at the stage where the world and the sign resembled each other – a time where, among other things, notations were primarily of the print kind.

Modernity and beyond. Source: Seconds
With the imposition of cursive over print (whether the distinction has become again a matter for debate), we have come to misunderstand the world even more acutely than before. We have come to misrepresent, primarily, the signs meant to represent Being. We have come to cover  to place a mask on  the interruptions that make writing what it is: a system of notations, i.e. of making notes, of taking note of the world.

Monday, 22 December 2014

Writing is what happens in the tiny breaks from life

Christmas. What of it? What does it have to do with writing? Why bring it up now, in the last week of December? Why write at all now, when everybody is taking a break from all work?

Let’s start from the straightforward. Christmas is classed as a holiday: Christ’s Mass, Yuletide, Koliada, Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, the commemoration of the birth of Jesus Christ, and so on. No matter what names we give it, it’s the holidayness of Christmas that stands out again and again. Well, it's precisely holiday that I am interested in: the holiness of things that are said to be holy.

Holy break

It's not the religious side that causes me to write about writing in relation to holiness. I am not a religious person. I don't, as such, go to church, I don't participate in rituals, I don't brandish a denomination. But the importance of all things holy rests, insofar as I am concerned, on their celebratory potential.

Source: The Trust Ambassador
Holidays, as all dictionaries will indicate, are periods of religious festival, but more importantly, they are days of recreation. And by recreation I understand primarily respite, pause, hiatus. A holiday marks an interruption. It tells the observant to stop whatever he or she was doing and engage in something different: something religiously significant, as the celebration of a Divinity. On a holy day, we stop.
“Holy,” a word of Germanic origins with wide-spread presence in all Nordic settings, suggests precisely this notion of stopping, of causing an interruption. The OED definition of the adjective:
"Kept or regarded as inviolate from ordinary use, and appropriated or set apart for religious use or observance."
Inviolate from ordinary use. With holy things, the mundane is given a break. Forget, for this while, that your life is tied to earthly significances. Think, for the same while, that you are not what you do every day; that you are not your quotidian self; that your life requires a forgetting of life and an engagement in things of non-quotidian nature.
A holy period is, therefore, a period of exceptions. That's why we eat and drink and make merry during holidays, whether we're religiously-minded or not. This is why we're doing all of the above in excess. And as with exceptions, the interruption marked by the holy defines a space where the different, the out-of-ordinary, the exceptional, can occur. The holy is, therefore, the space of an occurrence. It is where events can be (and are) generated; it is where there's an enclosure for the setting-apart of the exceptional to be made manifest.

A matter of life and death

Writing too, like all practices that produce artifacts, is a thing of exceptionality. In order to write, one needs to set aside everything that's habitual, mundane, familiar, commonplace. One needs to set aside even eating and drinking. In some extreme situations (see the case of Knut Hamsun's Hunger), one is forced to remember that eating and drinking are a real, painful, even unwanted reality: the reality of the biological. Writing and biology are (must be) antagonistic towards each other if the production of artifacts were to be considered for its pause-value. Writing intervenes (and this is a shattering statement) where life ceases to be. Where the body is no longer engaged in its quotidian flows and continuities, that’s where writing becomes possible. This is because life per se is continuity without consciousness. Our engagement with the things of life is so complete (we are so programmed to eat and drink, to walk and breathe, to sleep and laugh) that we do all these things without awareness. And so, it is only in the interruption of these things that we become aware again. When I've been writing for hours and hours and suddenly I feel hungry or thirsty or tired, it is then that I am reminded of the ordinariness of food, water, and sleep in my life. It is now that I become aware of the ordinariness of my life. But at the same time, I become aware of how disruptive of my life writing is. Of course, the same realization is likely to come about if I were a shoemaker. Hence the need for lunch breaks. Hence the need to hang the "Back in 15" sign from the front door.
Writing is what happens in the '15-minute' breaks from life.

Source: Photocat's Eyes
Now, let us not be fooled by someone who might bring up the issue of writing as a profession. In order to correct the possible mistake that may arise here, I should, perhaps, say that there's an obvious and fundamental difference between, for instance, shoe-making and shoe-mending. A shoe-maker serves an almost biological need: that of covering the feet of humans, which are no longer good enough to go about unprotected. Shoe-menders, on the other hand, generate a different type of thinking about shoes. With them, shoes become things of cultural circulation. Shoes are mended because they are dear to their owner (and there are reasons for this, which one could enumerate to one's heart's content); because they are dear in the financial sense (i.e. they are inscribed in an economic cycle where what's really important is distinction); because there's a desire for them to be renewed (i.e. they are understood in terms of a logic of cycles – again, a cultural amendment).
The distinction I want to draw here is one between necessity and excess, which can also be seen as a distinction between biology and culture. In this separation of the waters, writing stands on the side of excess. Nobody dies of not-writing. Not in the biological sense of the word death. And so, writing doesn't have life significance. Writing makes life stop.
This is not to dismiss or overlook the other forms of death, the self-inflicted ones in particular. Suicides are cultural deaths; deaths from natural causes are, well, as their very name indicates, natural, biological, not caused by human will. At close examination, accidental deaths too will appear to be framed within the empire of artifacts: caused by humans, inflicted (even when without intention) upon other humans.


I am not going to elaborate on death and dying here. But this parenthesis enables me to return to the point made in the beginning: that all arts and crafts in general, and writing in particular, are instances of interruption; that they are terminations of life's flows.
Writing, which occurs as an imposition of a textual rhythm upon an unconscious series of unnoticed occurrences, takes place within life. But when it does take place, it makes apparent this disjunction, this death.

Source: Pemberton Insurance
In his Diary, Kafka, the neurotic, excessive, sickly writer, had a multitude of occasions to reflect on this burning issue of writing-as-interruption. In his texts, reflections on writing turn out to be reflections on death itself. Take this example. June 6, 1912. Early in the day, he read the following in a letter by Flaubert (another obsessive writer, like himself):
"My novel is the cliff on which I am hanging, and I know nothing of what is going on in the world."
Kafka too (as he points out in the same entry) had written something similar a month earlier, on the 9th of May:
"Yesterday evening in the coffee-house with Pick. How I hold fast to my novel against all restlessness, like a figure on a monument that looks into the distance and holds fast to its pedestal."
Things of separation from the world, in both Flaubert and Kafka. Writing, producing the novel, is an act whereby connections are severed. While writing, the writer is no longer of-the-world. He lives in the act of writing, not in life itself. Life has been interrupted, and writing is that mighty interruption. And to confirm this, later in the day of June 6, Kafka returns to the thought, this time with a self-directed observation:
"Without weight, without bones, without body, walked through the streets for two hours considering what I overcame this afternoon while writing."

What Kafka had overcome while writing is obvious, from this quote as well as from other entries in his Diary: life itself, that barrier to writing, that succession of happenings which makes reflection impossible, that thing which writing is a pause of. Weightless, boneless, bodiless, the writer parts with his biology in order to operate within the metabiological territory of his own writing. And thus the gap is opened, room is made, the cessation of life is made apparent. In order to write, the writer must die. Self-inflicted death, no doubt – an artifact pure and simple.

Monday, 15 December 2014

Must I live with a writer's block?

There's no writer out there who doesn't speak, with anger or with pride, about their writer's block. I understand this blockage to be the intensification that comes when the emptiness of content ("I have nothing to write about; my mind is empty") meets the fullness of demand ("I should, I must; I have this deadline, I have been ordered to write and can't avoid the work").

What happens when I have nothing in mind – nothing to hang on to, while this terrible pressure to write rages within me like a hurricane? This slightly complicated and complicating question forces me to break its meaning into separate, more manageable, bits. What is this pressure? What is an external force, and why is it there, facing the subject, causing pain or anxiety or tension? What is the writing subject in relation to this exterior and in relation to this pressure?

The pressure of the world

Where nothing presents itself to me as writeable, I understand that the world, which is a text, resists its perception. In other words, it resists the intervention of the transformative subject that I am. When this happens, when I have to face the world in terms of an opposition, I am left with the only choice of behaving like an angler on the banks of a rapid river. I tease the waters, casting my line haphazardly, not knowing what might be there, not knowing if the line is strong enough, or if I will be strong enough to hold the text-to-come – my catch of the day.

Source: Wikipedia
This teasing, though, this toying with the laws of hazard, is not a simple form of play. I mean, it is a game alright, but not a facile one. This angling about, full of hopes but with no certitudes, is a game that defines the very essence of writing. As I can see in the relationship between the subject and the imperceptible world, the play with the hazards of the yet-unknown reveals the weakness of my position in relation to the world – in relation to the text of the world.
When I cast my line I am, in spite of being the one with the lure, with the trick, with the intent to murder the creature of the waters, I am, in truth, the weaker part. Weak because I can't see that which is about to become my victim. I am (to take this issue to its utmost conclusion) a murderer who keeps missing the body that he wants to kill.
I can't see my catch-of-the-day, no matter how hard I strain my eyes, no matter how many tricks I employ, how much I rely on sonars, UV glasses, and other similar cheats. To be more precise, the catch remains invisible to me even when I see it right there, inches from my hook and bait.
The deceiving nature of the world is that it is not what I can see, but rather what I can say. As a creator, my perceptions alone are of little importance. It is not the premise (the observation, the awareness I have of the world existing) that matters but the conclusion (the outcome, the output). In my quality as a writer, the difficulty doesn't start until I am obliged to put into words, images (artefacts), that which I believe to be the world. This is why I speak of an external pressure, a deadline of sorts, which is the demand formulated for me (against me), a demand which forces me to write the world down, to put the world into expression.

Luring the subjectless world

The world, insofar as it is mine, is lured into being by means of language. This is why what's outside the sentence, outside the film, outside the statue, outside the painting, is indeed more important – precisely because it is outside the subject, and therefore more likely to stand where the world stands.
The subjectless world is what I, the creative subject, love with passion. As in the case of the inhabitants of Plato's cave, the shadows I see projected onto the wall are not the world; they are just shadows, subjective misrepresentations of a misleading world. And will go away like shadows, with the coming of light.

The catch that lurks under the surface is not the catch of the day – it is only a shadow (a foreshadowing) of what might be my catch. Not yet here, not yet mine, it, too, teases: it teases me, it plays with my angler's nerves, it shows itself and hides itself, exposing its flesh only in order to make my awaiting even more painful, even more treacherous.
In order to see that fish as a catch-of-the-day, I need to see it caught – in my basket, in my grasp.
And so I will perhaps be allowed to say that writing is like angling. The action of testing the waters and fooling the fish so as to have it take the bite and hook, is the writer's searching about to find the right expression (the right catch). There are differences between a fish and an expression, no doubt. But I want to point out their similarity. The fish I have caught, like the expression I seem to have discovered, is an apparent certitude – indeed, a deception. What I have here, in my basket (in my vocabulary, on my page etc.), is far from what my angling about is truly capable of yielding. How do I know that this fish did not take the hook from another, bigger, fatter one? Since it's impossible for me to see what alternatives there were at the moment of the bite, I will never know what I've truly missed.

The subject under pressure

And hence, more pressure exerted on me. This time, the pressure of suspicion. There is no way I can free myself of this doubt, of this question: Have I acquired the best of all possible results? Have I written the Sentence? It is because of this suspicion that I have to do drafts; because of this suspicion that I have to spend sleepless nights reading the words of others, so as to make sure that what I'm doing is not mere repetition; or, even worse, that I am not unaware of my repeating the words of others.
I believe this suspicion is another reason for the blockage I experience when I say I have nothing to write. Nothing, as in ‘nothing original.’ Nothing, as in ‘nothing free of the fear of repetition.’
Technically speaking, there are various ways in which not-writing can be counteracted. Writing à la Surrealists or à la seance, as an automatism, is one of them. An easy drill: take a piece of paper and write anything that comes to mind. Any sequence of words will do, as no logical (i.e. grammatical) structure is expected.

Source: The Independent
But this is a mere technicality. It is a step-by-step set of operations that ease the pouring of words onto the page. (I don't want to talk now about the virtues of automatic writing, which reflect something fundamental about the art and the craft of scribbling: the arbitrariness of the entire process. But the point is worth keeping in mind.)
To a creator, who seeks to create order out of the disordered matter given to them in the beginning, automatic writing is like the training of professional wrestlers: it is not with the push-ups and the hours spent on the treadmill that the wrestler wins the fight; but the push-ups are crucial to winning, insofar as they represent the foundation of everything the wrestler can accomplish. With the push-ups, the wrestler is more likely to think of his fight as one free of the wrestler's block.
But the block is not completely avoidable. Never. In fact, the training represented by disordered scribbling does not eliminate the suspicion I spoke about a little earlier. On the contrary, it intensifies it, precisely because I hereby become aware that the haphazardness of it is not unique; that I cannot be the only one stumbling upon this very combination, this set of words, this seemingly original idea. Other writers (I'd call them my adversaries) can easily do the same. And so, what are the odds of me being so completely original? How can I say with certitude that the version I'm contemplating is the version that will satisfy my writing self forever?
So to answer the question in the title, I must say yes, I have to accept writer's block, since I cannot be without it. It is one of the most fundamental elements of the creative process. There is no way I can live without it, since there is no way I can acquire perfection. So there.

Monday, 8 December 2014

The myth of the single word

I'm in a George Saunders phase these days, reading Tenth of December, his collection released last year. I've taken a break to read the introduction. And here, in the form of an anecdote, I discover something about the relevance of death to writing. So I wax lyrical, I beat my brow and praise the muse for making me think of life-versus-death, of language, of me, of writing. Again.

Source: Brown Daily Herald
The anecdote is in the volume's introduction, an article by Joel Lovell reprinted from New York Times Magazine of January 2013.


The article is a summary of a discussion (or series of discussions) between Lovell and Saunders. In it, at some point, Saunders tells the story of how he faced death in a near crash while on a plane from Chicago to Syracuse.
Everything has gone well, the flight progressing as per schedule. Then suddenly there's a banging noise on the side of the plane, black smokes starts pouring in, the pilot gives a message in a trembling voice, women start screaming, a boy asks if this was supposed to happen. It looks certain: they are going to die. And here goes Saunders' voice now, explaining what he went through (with occasional explanatory interventions from Lovell):
“And I remember thinking, No, no, no, no, no, no, no. Just that one syllable, over and over. And also thinking, You could actually piss yourself. And the strongest thing was the sense of that seat right there.” He pointed toward the imaginary seat back in front of him. “I thought, Oh, yeah, this body. I've had it all this time, and that’s what’s going to do it. That right there.” He had assumed that if he was ever faced with death, he would “handle it with aplomb,” he would be present in the moment, he would make peace in the time he had left. “But I couldn't even remember my own name,” he said. “I was so completely not present. I was just the word no.”

Source: Click Top 10
The story captures very well the thing I want to talk about here: not so much death pure and simple as death through/of/by means of language. Or, to be more precise, the myth of the single word, a myth which has been teasing the world of writing since, probably, the beginnings of writing itself: how to put It (yes, capital I, coz it's the World I'm talking about) into a single syllable? How to find that sole gust of air coming out of your lungs that can encapsulate Everything? To Saunders (and I'm sure it is to others too – writers I can't think of right now) it's this proximity of death. This experience so complex in its (biological? cultural?) simplicity comes packaged with the usual suspects: the awareness of one's body becoming irrelevant, of the event of one's life becoming irrecoverable, of the proximity of the question of mortality becoming, suddenly, irrefutable.
It all comes like an avalanche. The multiplicity of life tumbling over one's entire being, somewhere between ecstasy and regret. A Sturm und Drang moment. The very possibility of Death comes as a surplus: too much, too soon, too close, too devastating: the argument of the inevitable made apparent. So the experience arrives avalanche-like to cover one's Everything, head to toe, consciousness, ego and all. Faced with this too-muchness of the prospect of death, one is overcome by the realization that one only has words to deal with the problem. One only has language. Language to deal with Everything. And then – then and there – language simplifies itself, it purifies its cloudy waters, it finds the Syllable. One's Everything becomes (because everything is a becoming – the happening of becoming) the Syllable. No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. A negation.
When faced with the evidence of Death's abundance, one can only formulate a negation. To affirm would be absurd. Affirmation means addition. Say Yes and you enlarge the abundance, make it more – abundant. But with No, with the only syllable that language allows itself to materialize as, you discover that a one-word essence is possible. That through all the fear and confusion and debris of the mind, there's one sound that can cover the entire horizon: it can cover the fear, as well as the confusion, as well as the debris of the mind.


Life is a dermatological problem. It creeps inside you through your skin. It is also, as one of my good poet friends said somewhere, a sexually transmitted disease with lethal consequences. There are many ways to describe life. Many words, that is, since in order to celebrate its own glory Life has buddied up pretty well with language. But Death? When Death comes, there's No – the Syllable – and nothing else. The only operation permitted is repetition. Not diversity, not complex loquacity, not armies of synonyms summoned to barrage the evidence of death, but repetition. Again and again and again. No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. A repetition that can only be stopped by Death itself: once you're dead you can no longer repeat words.

Source: Patheos
With the repeated Syllable one witnesses the self-defense of language. As in all self-defense techniques, what the self-defender has to do is find the right combination of moves, the right position of the body, the right punch, the right kick in the groin that renders the attacker useless. It's all in the way the technique is perfected, the repetition that makes the moves right, the practice that makes perfect.
The same goes with the monosyllabic negation of Death: the perfection of the word, its monosyllableness, its punctual, efficient statement.
The martial arts of language.
The jujitsu of the Empire of Words.
Twisting Death's hand, throwing her to the floor and saying, I'm so terribly afraid of you the only disciplined way in which I can behave is use a single word. So that if you occur, if you do smite me and take me away, I know at least I've said something to you in exchange. I showed you that I am truly a being of words.
Take the word hand for my hand.
Take the word head for my head.
Take the word eye for my eye.
And so on for my ego, self, the I that I like to think I am.
So that when you, Death, come to me you find me as a text. It's no wonder, then, that when you frighten me with the death you stand for, Death, I have something to say.
Famous last words are proof of this – of the textuality of the human being. So that what you, Death, take with you when you think you annihilate me is in fact a text: a collection of words, a manifestation of language. You take away the potentiality of writing, since every word contains in itself the possibility of it becoming a mark on a page: a poem, an edict, a revolt, a resignation.
You eradicate the text that I am, but in doing so you set me free: free of the constraints of writing, free of the processed meat of language, free of conventionalities. You make me one with the word I can utter. No name, no body, no identity. Only the Syllable – not my annihilation but yours, since the Syllable doesn't require the technology of writing (which to me, as a writer, stands for everything that's technological in the human species); it only requires the biology of my vocal chords. This reminds me that biology is where the difference between Life and Death looks truly sharp, really relevant, where it matters to say something – to say.
And so with the following definition I can march forward: An utterance is the end of death.

Monday, 1 December 2014

What a rock can teach us about writing

At the beginning of last week I attended the public lecture of Alain Badiou in Auckland. He spoke about things that I find relevant to my obsession: writing. In what follows I will try to rethink his thoughts from this perspective of mine, and see if I'm any good at linking his ideas (which are mostly about mathematics, politics, and arts) to writing. [And just to keep the necessary distance, I must say that this is not a lesson in philosophy. I could not. I wouldn’t dare.]

Badiou's lecture was built around an quote from Jacques Lacan: "The Real is the impasse of formalization." Now, to start with, one will have to recapitulate, perhaps, one's understanding of the Real (not to be confused with 'reality,' which is a different matter altogether).

The Real

The Real, that which resists signification, is what exists anterior, exterior, and independent of the human subject and language. It's what is inexpressible, unsayable, unrepresentable. It is that which we are not even aware of, since it lives outside our awareness as well. But it's there. The Real is always there. It has always already been there. We come upon it by accident (what Badiou calls 'event'). And when we do, we come to a profound and shattering realization: we find out that we have been following the wrong show; that the signs we have created are somewhat inappropriate; not wrong in the sense of mistaken, but in the sense of limited – and limitative at the same time. It's like what happens to a lump of rock when it is turned into a statue. Before the statue there's only the rock. Better still, before the statue there is the mountain with the rock imbedded in it. And this is where the story starts.

Paper, scissors, rock

Before the rock was the mountain, but I don't want to think of this mountain as a finite entity: Mount Rushmore, or Mount Killimanjaro, or Mount Everest, or anything else – take your pick. I want to think of the mountain as something indefinite, something that has no real borders, no limits, something which cannot be put into a category, cannot be turned, for instance, into an object of art; something which, to use a better word, cannot be formalized. Not yet, that is.

Source: Marli Miller
But at some point, from within this mountain, someone cuts out a rock. Or maybe they find it already separated, eroded by natural phenomena and whatnot (it doesn't matter). By separating this rock from the rest of the mountain, this someone has performed an act of signification. He/she has isolated something, removed it, turned it into something with a human purpose, something with a semantic weight. Now it becomes clear that the mountain was anterior, exterior and independent of the human agent. The untouched mountain is a phenomenon over which the human has had no influence yet. Moreover, before the intervention, the mountain contained the rock as a potentiality. In the mountain, the rock has always already existed in this instantiation, as a piece of rock to be taken out.
And so, along the same line of reasoning we can say that, before the human gesture, this rock existed as part of the mountain. The mountain was a multiplicity containing the rock as an element of itself – an undifferentiated one but still there; hidden but there.

Source: Wikimedia

The artist's turn

We can, obviously, go further with this. Our rock, just separated from the multiplicity in which it existed before, is taken to an artist, who wants to make a sculpture out of it. He/she does so, and out of the rock comes a statue. Even more obviously than in the affair of the rock, here too we are dealing with a case of signification. And it's probably easier to see how the statue, the finished, polished, man-made object is, in relation to the rock, what the rock was in relation to the mountain. In the rock, the statue existed as a potentiality. The rock had in itself this special virtue, hidden, not yet brought to light, not yet materialized, of becoming, one day, the statue we are admiring now.
We can say that the rock, in relation to the statue, is something akin to the Real. It is the Real in the sense of being anterior, exterior, and independent of the rock. Anterior in the sense of having existed before the statue; exterior in the sense of being larger than the statue – containing the statue, as it were; and independent in the sense of existing outside of any intention of the statue (if that were even possible) to become an artefact.

Source: GoPixPic
The statue was potential in the rock, but that potentiality becomes apparent only after the artist has finished it. In order for us to have an ‘aha’ moment, we need an artist who has finished his work. So we can say that it is with the event of the statue's coming to life that we realize that it has always already been there, as a possibility, as a virtual materialization.

Events and impasses

Badiou talks a lot about events, which he considers to be the most important (and original, thus far) thing to be said about Being. In Badiou's philosophy, about objects/things (sculptures, for instance) one cannot say that they are. Instead, one has to say that they happen. They are the result of events. And these events offer us glimpses of what the Real might look like. But there's a major aspect to be mentioned here. An event is not a sole possibility. It is only one embodiment, one possibility, out of an infinity of other possibilities.
The point in the case of our statue is this: the piece of rock from which it emerged could have ended up as anything else. As a representation of a dog, as another lump of rock, as chips scattered about, as a block of any shape, as a failed sculpture. It's in this mass of possibilities that we find the complexity/multiplicity of Being (the being of the rock as well as the being of the world). And it's here that we find out the truth about human action: that we, in essence, put a limit to the complexity of the world every time we perform an act of separation (the way we did it in the case of the statue).
So what does it mean to say, with Lacan, that "the Real is the impasse of formalization"?
Formalization is the phenomenon of turning the rock into a statue: the drawing of limits to a thing that appeared, in the first instance, to be infinite. Every time we create something we produce events. But at the same time, we limit the immense field of potentialities that existed in Being. In relation to this, the Real, which presents itself as an incomprehensible surplus, is that which cannot be formalized; cannot be put into forms; cannot be made into objects (of art, of use, of purpose). In other words, it raises an impasse in front of the human agent precisely at the moment when he is engaged in a rapport with the same real. It does so as a reminder. The agent is reminded, with every act of creation, that the Real is an impossibility, that no matter how hard he tries, there’s no way he can attain the Real.
When you know you can't represent the unrepresentable, you are stuck; it feels like there's no way forward, towards further signification (the statue has taken the place of all other possible statues), neither backward (one cannot recreate the rock by putting together all the pieces that made its previous structure). And this is the impasse.

And writing

All of the above can be said about writing as well. Writing operates on language the way the artist operates on the lump of rock. Through writing, things come out of language, which were not imagined before. Words are made apparent when they are turned into written signs. Otherewise, when they are still in the spoke form, they resemble the world too much to pose any major question about their validity. Words thus written represent the formalisation of language. Of course, language too behaves in relation to the world in the way the rock behaves in relation to the mountain: it is not a perfect rendering of the world; it is only a fragmented entity, a being from within Being – a phenomenon that proves the multiplicity of the world and its unrepresentability.
What would writing be without language? A system of signification without a referent. But what would language be without writing! So much more, so more impregnated with itself!

Monday, 24 November 2014

Drafts and dissatisfactions

Following last week’s post, I need to say this: if on the one hand we can speak of the pride of the work-well-done, we could also speak, on the other hand, of a nostalgia that comes with the state-before-work.

Source: Life Hacker
When we see our text in printed form, we often experience the regret of not having put it into the right words. Going over a draft and making changes to it is not, as we would be tempted to say, an effect of some cult of perfection. At the end of the day, there are texts of one draft and paintings of one layer. The need to repaint is not always felt with an urge. The sense of that ‘perfect version’ is often secured from the first dab of paint.
No, I don't think it's the dream of a perfect outcome that drives us to a redeployment of our creative resources. It is rather the acknowledgment of the complexity of possibilities that stood at the foundation of the finished text.

Returning, again and again

With a text, we have only accomplished one of the many possibilities that existed before the same text was even dreamed of. We have completed one of the possible journeys. We have given voice to one set of embodiments.
In essence, every single draft is just as good as any other. But what matters is the moment when, often unconsciously, one stumbles upon the truth that the universe of possibilities is greater, ever more complex than a single text. That moment matters because in it one rediscovers the fact of the-state-before-the-beginning. And, along with it, the pleasure of what Mircea Eliade called ‘the eternal return’: the blissful reiteration of a golden age of perfections, now lost but still capable of being re-enacted.
One's displeasure with the current state of a given text (its draft) marks this necessity of the return to where the text has not yet come into being. What is being challenged on this occasion is the origin: the sense that all that matters is what has followed after the beginning. This happens as if there were no other ways of gauging the depths of a text than by reference to its initiation. But there is more to be found in the constituency of a text, in its morphology. Its very history too needs to be regarded, with all benevolence, from a perspective that relativizes its inception.

Source: Sadie's Sketchbook


From the perspective of a sign theory, the apparition of a text is equivalent to the rise of a sign. What we read when we read a text is truly a sign. But signs, as we know, are arbitrary. They depend on the whim of the agent signifier and on the possibilities enabled by the system of signification in which it appears. Take these things out and you're left with a pre-sign: a sign not yet created but found in a state of pregnant potentialities. Note the plural. There is no such thing as one possibility when we speak of a text; the reader-response theories of the twentieth century have taught us this much. But the fact that an infinite number of readings can create an infinite number of texts is only a reflection of the same game of potentialities existent in the text/sign in the first place.
It often happens to me that I read a story, a novel, an essay, and I find within the text places where I would have done it otherwise. This is where I find the draftness of texts, their capacity to be different from their actual form. And here I may say I am better situated, because I can see the phenomenon not in my own text (where I may be said to be biased by a personal urge to do better) but in the text of another. In a text of someone else's making I do not perceive a deficit of the agent (the author in flesh and blood) but a deficit of the process of textual formation, which depends on arbitrary signs and external rules.
I return upon a given text because of this fundamental deficit of signification. The signs I am using are not likely to describe the Real, which resists the power of signs and which continues to live outside of the said signification. Forever and ever.
The fact that we have a science of signs doesn't change in the least the terms of the problem. Like all sciences, semiotics is not prescriptive but descriptive. It does not tell us how signification is to be done, but describes existent acts of signification, i.e. it tells us about how signification has taken place. Biology too cannot possibly tell about the making of Life, but dwells happily among lives, among specimens of the phenomenon Life. In other words, it describes them; it never gives recipes.

A triad of dissatisfactions

I would call this perpetual return upon the point before the origin of a text 'the drive towards drafting.' It comes, as I said earlier, as a regret: the sorrow, if you like, of not finding the right words. This regret highlights the imperfection of the written text and, at the same time, issues out a warrant against all future forms of writing. I write knowing that the most probable outcome is a dissatisfaction that will have to be fixed, a dissatisfaction that will have to be 'worked out.'

Source: V&A
Displeased, distraught, disenchanted. These are the three stages of dissatisfaction that come with the production of a text. First, one experiences a loss of pleasure: the text is incomplete, it requires further input, further work, further effort; if it promises anything, that can only be the expenditure of one's energies. Second, one lives to be distraught by the text. There is a panic in every text: the realization that one has to deal with the problem, that there's no way one can leave it the way it is, that one must proceed with further drafting in order to shape the perfectly imperfectible text. And then, at the last stage of this triad of dissatisfactions, one grows disenchanted with the text. This last stage is attained when the author decides that the current version is the final version. Commonly thought to be the glorious moment of a text's completion, the final version is final only by way of an abrupt decision. The writer decides, at a whim, that he/she can't go any longer. They may be tired, they may be sick. There is a nauseating impression one gets from toiling repeatedly the same field only to get out of it the same crop of frustration. And so a finish line has to be sought. Published texts are precisely that: instantiations of the finish line – a line that's always arbitrarily drawn, since at the end of the day, there's no established number of drafts a text must go through before the author makes the decision. Any draft is, potentially, the last draft. Any ending is, let’s be honest, the perfect one. But the doubt – the awareness that this could have ended differently…

Monday, 17 November 2014

The nostalgia of writing

Here's a question: are texts nostalgic? Not in the sense of being overly reflective, and therefore sentimental, but in the sense of having to come to terms with some loss experienced once the words are on the page, once the text is 'out there.' Can we speak of a text's Golden Age, to which the said text refers to as though to a paradisiacal age of innocence and bliss?

Source: Elite Daily
In an interview published by Timothy Clark and Nicholas Royle in their Technologies of the Sign, Jacques Derrida made reference to "a body of letters laid out on a page and that you no longer carry within yourself." That, to him, was the printed text. And by the printed text I understand the text presented back to the writer as a confirmation of their work.

Well done!

The sight of the text that grew within one's mind (within one's body, to be more precise, because this growth doesn't preclude the participation of one's entire physicality - the way, for instance, Lacan said once that he didn't think with his head but with his feet) generates a double-edged reaction.
On the one hand, there's the pride of the work well done. With the words that appear, one receives a sort of congratulation for having followed closely the procedures, methodology, and all the conventional tracks that make a text possible. It is only by this following, this compliance, this willful subjection, that a text can come to light. There is, inherent in any given text (written or not), a code that prescribes all this procedural deployment. In order to swim, one has to jump in a mass of water because water and body have the properties needed for swimming to take place. (We can laugh our heart out reading the seventeenth-century play The Virtuoso, by Thomas Shadwell, in which the protagonist teaches theoretical swimming, which involves no water, only mental effort and dry land; but the satire points out precisely the inaccuracy of a purely theoretical approach). In the same way, in order to speak, one needs to use one's vocal chords and to articulate the words inherited through the genetic memory of language, because speech can only materialize through vocal chords. In order to write, then, one needs to follow the steps that make the appearance of written words possible.
And so, written texts confirm the validity and functionality of a long series of procedural requirements. The fact that a text has been written confirms that I have properly understood, internalized, and employed the practice of drawing letters and then of forming words from those letters; it confirms that I have properly employed the sequential logic of grammar, spelling, punctuation etc., that I am appropriately situated within a discursive setting, and that I have access to tools proper to the trade. I am, with every text I am producing, a monument to the technicity of writing.


And so, when I see the text (my text!), when I find it laid down on a manuscript page, mounted on a computer screen, printed in a book, I find pleasure in the recognition of that text. But wait; there's something else to be said. What I recognize in such a moment is not quite the mental pre-formation that lived in my head. The form taken by my ideas is not equivalent to the form taken by my words - basic lesson in semiotics. What I recognize is the logic of production that exists/has always existed behind every finalized text.
Since writing is a techné (a craft), it carries inside it, in its foundational code, the memory of how it comes to light and of how it has to be midwifed into that light. In other words, in every text I read I find the DIY of writing; I see, as it were, the luminous way from head to hand, the accepted (the only one possible) physical way in which a text can become a written text. That's why I can only learn to write through imitation. And so, when I get a chance to reproduce the same procedures, I am reassured that I have followed the right path. A sigh of relief accompanies my encounter with my own text. Task completed!

Source: All Things D
There's little room for critical attitudes here. I can throw any number of tantrums, I can complain at will, I can deplore the condition of my dependence on a pre-established set of procedures, which mocks my freedom at its most fundamental level, but I can't change the Way. And so, because I am not likely to change anything, I am left with the satisfaction of the job done properly. With that sense of having finished what had to be finished. It's interesting to note that this sense of satisfaction is brought about via a deep dissatisfaction: the certainty that the Way has precedence over me; that the Way bends my will; that I am subjected to the Way. And so, I regret to be satisfied. I am sorry for not having it my way but only the Way's way.
Every happy gesture of production (every instance when something is created as a result of the faithful application of preordained codes and procedures) carries within it a loss of agency. So when we are most satisfied we are also at our highest dissatisfaction.

Going back

What can be done about this almost neurotic experience of writing? Apparently nothing. Not when we imagine this 'doing something' as a forward movement. There is no correction possible 'after' the text. Whatever drafts we may produce, they are not aimed forward but tragically, self-referentially, backward. A draft is not a promise of a better text but a correction of a text that, in following all the practical steps that brought it to light, has also caused its own doom. With every version we generate we reiterate our fundamental dissatisfaction of having to employ imperfect methods, of having to follow a crooked Way, but mostly of having to accept that this Way, crooked as it is, is the only one there is.

Source: B.J. Keeton
Because a draft is a statement of dissatisfaction, it is also a reference to the happy state in which the text existed before taking its physical form.
Hence, the text arrives at its fruition laden with a nostalgic reiteration of its non-physical origins.

Monday, 10 November 2014

The author that was/is/will be

Reader-response theories, still dominant in many academic circles, juggle with the notions of author and reader, turning the former into a ghost in order to acclaim the latter as a hero. With this, production becomes post-production. What matters is what gets out of the text, not what enters it: the outcome, and not the source. And so, we come to think of texts as finalized products: they have reached the stage where the writer has nothing of interest to say; now hush the writer and give the reader his/her right to act as a dictator.

Source: Cronkite School
From the viewpoint of this reader-response stance the text I read has no chance at reconstructing itself. I am the only force that deals the blows here, the only actor with a part. The author can only sit and watch, watch and learn, learn and apply. The author is him/herself a reader. In order to be capable of writing they need to train their reading buds.
True, true, true. But what of the rest? (The rest, which used to be the essence?) What about the point where the text is generated, where it comes to light? In other words, what about the author?

Fingerprints all over the text

With the emancipation of the reader, every reading makes a new text of the text laid here, in front of me; there's a personalisation of reading and a depersonalisation of writing. In this way, writing is gradually divested of its former spirituality. It is materialized, and radically so. Modern and postmodern texts, which engage in playfulness with the intention of presenting themselves to the reader as games, consider only the mechanics of production but not the metaphysics of text-making. But there must be something beyond the physical in every form of creation, in every form of making. Where, for instance, should we place the idea that generated the ‘product’? How to think about it in a way that gives it its due? Is it material too? Purely material?
There is, of course, the thought of a concept being nothing but a combination of all the concepts that preceded it, and from which this one, this current concept/idea that's crossing my mind, is only an outcome. Every text is an intertext (Genette). Every meaning is a foremeaning (Gadamer).
I place my hand onto a text (while I am holding the book, while I am following the linearity of the signs, while I am perusing), and the text will bear my fingerprints. What's more important, though, these fingerprints of mine will not be there forever. They are just as transitory as the fingerprints of another reader, or even better: as my own fingerprints at my second reading. Re-readings too are, you see, manifestations of the text’s plurality, of its incommensurable capacity to multiply its presence.
A dirtied text, a text soiled by the fingerprints of its many readers – this should be the subject matter for a true forensics of textuality. In it, the reader is a printer. A finger-printer. His marks cover the text to the extent that the text is no longer visible. The fingerprint becomes the text. But of course, the fingerprint is not the text; it is its abolition. At the point where the fingerprint can be said to be a text, it has become a text of its own. Not exactly a mirror of the original text, but a representation of it; i.e. a complication, a superimposition, an overtaking, a colonisation.

Source: Try It Once

The return of the precedent

But there must be something that precedes this fingerprint. Since the fingerprint is a mark, it requires a surface to appear on. Marks without surfaces are impossible to imagine. Written words without the paper, the screen, the hard-drive, are preposterous. Reading that is not of a text is an idea that hurts – because it cannot fit inside my mind. (My mind, the surface on which the idea is inscribed.)
Hence the axiom: reading requires a text.
In saying this – in agreeing that reading requires a text –, I am turning my attention to the precedent and, with it, start seeing through the seemingly unfair dominion of the mighty subsequent, His/Her Majesty the Reader.
If anything needs to be clarified before launching an Operation ‘Return of the Author,’ I have to admit the following: I do believe that a text is not an out-of-the-blue enterprise; not a miracle, not a muse's whisper in my ear, not a surprise impossible to explain. I don't want to say that a text is. Instead, I say that a text has been; it has always already been. When I read something I know (I must know) that this very text has existed as a potentiality before its coming to light; the way a child existed as an embryo: a physical virtuality, if I am allowed the oxymoron. The fact that it exists here and now is an indication that there has always been a potential for it to exist.
At the same time, I don't believe in the myth of the personal talent. If, as the common belief has it, you're born with it and you die with it, I’d say there's nothing exciting left in-between. And that’s a pity, because there would be no chance for the ‘untalented’ to grow into authors.

Of agency

Although we need the humility to admit that authors are promoters of others’ authorships, the creator must not be completely dismissed, because if we do dismiss them we screen off all the work that went into the production of the text. And that cannot be done without discrimination. That cannot be done without establishing some (wrong) hierarchies.
Hunting and gathering are acknowledged types of work, just as much as code writing, for instance, is. The former presuppose seemingly reactive actions: you pick or shoot at something that simply exists out there, and for the acquisition of which you make little effort. The latter, however, because it lives under the sign of creativity, presents itself as proactive action: to write a computer programme one needs to take a leap forward, to produce something where no production was posed as inherently necessary (Creation is always surplus. We could live well with what we have. Mythologies speak of the Great Creation as a gesture of putting together things had in excess, things that the divinity could dispose of because it had too much of. Creating a new entity where there was no material need for it is equal to enacting the luxury of the aristocrat, of the god that sits fatted and content behind/before the starting point of creation.)
But there's something in hunting/gathering (in which, by the way, I see an apt metaphor for everything that’s conceived of as ‘passive’) that is also proactive, i.e. something that produces a surplus, and something that has the right to be called an act of creation. And that thing is the agency of the hunter/gatherer. At the end of the day, not everything is picked up for consumption. There is selection. There is choosing and weighing and deciding. There is a long process of pre-conception that shapes the conception proper.
Production is (and here's the gist of my gesture against the reader-centric attitude) not only post-production but also pre-production. Before the product there was a process. Before the pork chop there was a pig. Before the text there was labour. It is this ‘before’ that I think we need to be more careful with before discarding as irrelevant.
The agency of the text-producer is fundamental (in the sense of it standing at the very foundations of the created text). Since everything pre-exists in a state of potentiality, and every text predates itself, it is difficult, indeed impossible, to turn all possibilities into all outcomes ever possible. Impossible, as well as impractical. Some fanning and winnowing is required. Creation of this type is, I believe, dependent on an inductive logic. It needs initial searches and ponderings (later discarded, because an economy of production also needs to be considered) in order to form the basis of the text to come. The present text is not only the sum of all texts that generated it but also the sum of all the discarded, forgotten texts. The irrelevant has a word to say in the formation of a text.

Long live the author!

It is the author who does all this. It is in authorship that the gesture of creation finds its justification, since justification is demanded from an act that points towards a surplus.
Kenneth Goldsmith wrote an entire book in which not a single word was his. And yet, he is the author of that book. I don't see in this a sarcastic statement, or a negation of authorship per se but, on the contrary, an affirmation of the power of the author. If only to put it into simple terms, I might ask this question: Who, if not Goldsmith, would have bothered to collect all those texts and present them together, with the purpose of offering the reader a coherent object? Who, if not the author (changed as he may be, liberated as he may stand, relativized as he may appear) would be capable of this toil, of this transcription of signs into other/new signs?

The fact that Goldsmith has an explanation for his poetic art strengthens my belief that agency matters; that the death of the author must not be understood – as too many, unfortunately, do – in absolute terms. Yes, authors still matter. Yes, they still exist. Yes, they will never disappear – unless we cease to be signifying creatures. Which is, more than any other propositions of its kind, a truly ridiculous thing to say.