Sunday, 27 July 2014

Packaged writing: Forms and Boxes

I'm off for two weeks. My friend Dominic is taking over with a very interesting essay. I find it relevant to the place where I left last week, when I was talking about schools, education, and the institutional approximations of writing. As the text was too long for a single entry, we decided to half it and thus cover two consecutive weeks. Here's the first hemisphere. Enjoy.


Francisc’s post last week immediately made me think of something which I wrote earlier this year, looking at the relationship between forms and boxes on the one hand, and writing practices on the other. I sent it to him and he invited me to adapt it for this blog.

“Think outside the box.” How often, in this globalised, economy-driven world do we stumble upon this tired and trite cliché? And let’s be honest, the mildly adapted “think outside the brief” isn't any better. Both of them are sorry examples of the so-called “buzzspeak” of the business ecosphere, still somehow in vogue, particularly among those who don’t work in the business world. They’re pretty frustrating, if you asked me, and that’s primarily because, in their very utterance, they recreate the thing they are attempting to circumvent; they merely draw a bigger box to contain this very out-of-the-box thinking, without making things any clearer or easier than they were in the beginning. What was outside the brief, even if only for a moment, is now firmly back inside it. The box, the brief, they have simply been restated, much like how schoolteachers restate ignorance in their attempts to explain it away. But more on this later…

The attack of the Mighty Form

I became rather obsessed with forms and boxes, in part due to having to fill in a lot of them for various scholarships I was applying for. (You have to be in to lose, as one of my friends says. I lost.) Of course, once you start looking for forms, you start seeing them everywhere, particularly in the university where I currently study, and hope to work one day (the only difference between these two things, ideally speaking, ought to be a salary, but we know this isn't entirely true, right?). The place is practically awash with forms. Listing even only a few of them is enough to make one’s head spin: forms for grant proposals, scholarships, transfer requests, concession forms, extensions, confidentiality agreements, and so on and so forth. Forms and boxes everywhere. The university is a realm of knowledge whose foundations are built on paper. Its day-to-day is a constant transaction of forms and paperwork.
This inflation of blank-spaced documents made me think of the relationship between boxes and writing. For some reason, form-filling doesn't feel like an instance of writing. We don’t perceive it as such. We view it as some separate thing entirely. We’re just filling out forms, and that’s all. Nothing to it. And yet this is probably one of the more consistent acts of transcription that many people ever do. But what can forms and form-writing tell us about writing in general?
When we look at a form, it is usually fairly clear to us what the document is demanding. Either through explicit instruction or implicit design, the form in-forms us as to its specific demands. However, being lost inside this specificity, or rather, obscured by it, is what the form teaches us of its own practice. As a component of the writing process, when we investigate the nature of forms we discover something of the nature of writing. Forms and writing are blended into one another. Looking at it more closely they can’t be separated at all.

The form, the format, the box

I came across the exercise below in my (much younger) sister’s homework some time last year. Evidently, it’s an exercise designed to teach the forming of letters. Recalling it during this form-obsession, I looked online to try and find it, and sure enough, this is a pretty standard manner of teaching letters - one of the first activities we do when learning literacy. The action implicitly obliged by the traceable lines of the letters indicates that this constitutes a kind of form-filling action. Right from the very outset then, in becoming lettered, we learn to form in a dual sense: the forming of letters, and the recognition and replication of the form itself. The ghost-like etchings of the letters, coupled with the boxes inside which they live their gloriously boxed lives, teach the requirement of working within the square, the very basis of form filling.

An aid made by teacher Angela Griffith for children to learn to transcribe letters. 
The whole scholastic-educative system proves to be underpinned by forms and the act of form-filling, right from the very first exercises we undertake (or are under-taken for us and to us) in writing. Most of these incipient writerly activities take the very clear shape of a form, in the guise of spelling sheets, math problems and so on. Although it becomes increasingly oblique over the course of our schooling, this framework is consistent throughout the process of our education. The very notion of homework can be considered a form-performance action, informed as it is by such exercises, all of which fit under the form-filling umbrella. It all brings new light to the concept of formal education itself (not to mention the notion of being informed). The repetitive form-filling action teaches us increasingly to recognise less the parameters of a form or forms, or indeed, even question them, and pay more attention to the specifics of the individual form in particular. The meta-learning process of filling in boxes is obscured by its regularity and its special way of hiding behind demand. But let’s just look at this again. Would it be too much to see the entire educative process as a progression of filled-in boxes? Would it be too presumptuous of us to see that most of the rewards we get are in fact rewards for having acquired this unique skill, for having mastered this unique educational contraption: the box?

A special place

The box is the form’s primary tool. It privileges the space within which some responses will be considered legitimate, and discounts those falling outside the borders: the illegitimate ones, the unaccepted, the outrageous; the outlaws of writing. The box is a designed space, a visual limitation of where one can and cannot write. Each box represents a border. We recognise this implicitly, hence the feeling of awkwardness whenever we find ourselves running out of space within the lines and having to contemplate writing outside the frame. The box can be either explicitly outlined, physically concretised and made visible, or implied and left invisible. The form it takes matters less. What really counts for successful forming is the form’s very success. Please respond to these questions in the space provided, tick that box, and sign on the dotted line. Kindly forget that there is wood in those trees on your way out. Thank you. Nuance? Not likely.
The logic of the form appears to permeate so many facets of contemporary life. Let’s take the example of tertiary education; our exams, to be more precise. Think of the first action one takes when one sits an exam: the filling-out of the form on the cover sheet. I don’t feel the need to say too much (exams are an easy target, after all), but I can’t help thinking that maybe the whole process is formatted (or form-matted) this way. Every thought I generate, every word I write; they all fit inside these prescribed spaces. Even the essay constructs a box around itself, for what is a limited word-count if not an invisible border? Stray too far under or over and you suffer the consequences. The margins, the font size? Formatted processes. Titles, subheadings, questions? Nothing but borders, frames, boxes.
Ah, the boxed adventure of my education! But it doesn't stop there. The ruled lines on a legal pad, they too emphasise the ordered nature of writing. The page, the Mighty Page itself, is a box, as is the computer screen, as is the word processor. I turn around and all I can see is writing that occurs in boxes. That’s because writing does occur in boxes. Only we don’t see them. We turn a blind eye on the box, distracted by the contents. Please initial here, here and here. Write your name, date of birth and purpose for your visit. Sign here, thank you.
(to be continued)

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Why writing is NOT a miracle

I talked about miracles not long ago, and somehow it seemed relevant to discuss writing in relation to them. Relevant, but not immediately available, since writing (unlike miracles) is premeditated, i.e. we know what it is going to lead us to before we have experienced it at all.

Stultifera Navis

The miraculous side of writing, if such thing is ever possible (if it is ever allowed to happen within the bounds of the marvellous), is not a thing easy for us to acquire. That, of course, has nothing to do with writing in particular, but rather, more generally, with the way we are taught and with the way education happens upon us.

Source: Studio Bendib
Schools do not work by means of sudden discoveries, but via a gradual, painstaking, scholastic unfolding of all forms of knowledge, of all techniques and all distinctions. Jacques Rancière insists that our perception of education is wrong from the get-go. We assume, he argues, that between the teacher and the disciple there is (there must be!) a difference of intellects. There’s always the Titan who knows and the pygmy who has no clue. It is between these two tragic figures that we tend to negotiate the meaning of learning. One is smart (too smart), while the other is stupid (too stupid). There is nothing left between these extremities: no territory where the teacher can be stupid (at least a little) and the student smart (at least for the length of the season of their education). In fact, the difference is so colossal, the disciple is in a constant state of stupefaction. He/she needs to be shaken into reality in order to realize his/her own presence in the equation. He/she needs to be told and re-told how little they know and how much they still have to learn. And that stultifies them (to use a term Rancière employs a lot). Seen from this perspective, education is a capital promise; rarely a fulfillment.

Read the prescription!

Rancière doesn't deny the existence of a fundamental inequality in the phenomenon of education. But (he argues) this is not an inequality of intellects, but rather an inequality of volitions. It is the willingness to learn (to give up everything else in order to learn) that truly makes a difference between the one who knows and the one who doesn't. And then again, the one who doesn't know is not necessarily inferior. He/she is simply not interested. Or (which is worse) he/she is not interested because he/she is constantly kept in check by a massive apparatus of social and political constraints which give them tasks to complete, jobs to finish, positions to fill, thus making it impossible to approach education in ways that are non-professional.
And so, we get to learn writing according to prescriptions. Not only are we force-fed with genres, templates, models, we are also reminded of the sanctions applicable in case of non-compliance. Consider plagiarism, and the qualifications of dishonesty, stealth, or wrongful appropriation. A whole rhetoric of criminality scares the soul out of us every step of the way.
Miracles, of course, are not possible under such conditions. The thing that singularises miracles is their disrespect for rules. In order for a miracle to take place it has to contravene. It has to surprise by non-compliance. And this is why writing, when taught in schools, isn't much fun.
Remember Descartes? He started his method with a negation of all schools. That’s why his realization (Je pense, donc je suis) comes as a shock, as a surprise that reconfigures the ground of all education; as a miracle, to some extent. Once Descartes discovers the essence of man in his ability to reason, the fun can start all over again.

No epiphanies, please!

But schools forbid situations where the learner comes suddenly upon a realization, especially when the realization doesn't happen under the mentor’s control. They are even fiercer when it comes to self-taught individuals. Auto-didacticism is rejected by educational institutions for obvious reasons: if you’re capable of teaching yourself, what’s the use of the school? The school is an institution, there’s no secret in it. And thus, to most of us, the discovery of writing is not a discovery at all but an encounter with the disciplining power of schools.

Source: Edudemic
Sadly enough, we don’t perceive the encounter with writing as an explosion, as rapture. Writing is prepared for us and we are prepared for the meeting with writing. There’s an arranged marriage between us. We learn how to draw circles and lines and how, for instance, to associate the letter C with an open mouth, and D with an open mouth carrying a stick. In essence, writing is first drawing, which is acquired ability to reproduce (i.e. approximate) things. As Serge Tisseron points out with a pert psychoanalytic wink, writing as a graphic gesture has its origins in drawing, or the leaving of traces upon a page. There is, in other words, another stage that precedes the inscriptional technique we call writing. Writing, you see?, really has no chance to surprise us.

History and materiality

But there is another, more obvious reason why writing and miracles are not exactly on the same page; and that is the fact of writing’s history. Now, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, we come in contact with writing not as a craft but as a mass of accumulated productions. Millions and millions of pages, infinities of words, letters impossible to count. The deluge is apparent not only in the traditional forms, but also, and more prominently, in the new digital media. Now, more than ever before, writing comes to us wearing the outfit of endlessness. Now, more than ever before, it is possible to see Borges’ infinite library materialized as an exceptional accumulation. Of course, this is not a thing of the twenty-first century. The superabundance of texts has been called to attention at various points in the history of writing; but to a reader at the beginning of the twenty-first century it appears more pressing because of the diversification of the means of production. We already have behind us a history so vast, a multitude of texts so baffling, an ease in handling writing tools so obvious, it is impossible to pretend we didn't know. Writing is upon us before we open our eyes. We wear it on the bracelet in the maternity ward: the label to carry for the rest of our lives.

Source: ABC News
And then there’s also the material maintenance of writing in general. Writing implements used to come, not long ago, in support of writing, as consequences of writing (post-writing, so to speak). The new digital technologies, however, precede, motivate, encourage writing. They make writing unavoidable. Among the machines of our times there are many which have been invented with the sole purpose of generating new forms of writing. The multimodal composition that dominates the online world is not a consequent but a precedent of digital writing. Writing is now designed rather than laid upon the page in a reliable linear fashion.

Source: Digital Trends
Design, of course, presupposes conscious planning, scheduling, forecasting, organization, programming, calculation, premeditation, scheming. The design of digital texts is a cunning design. It makes writing fit into patterns that are no longer appreciated by other humans, but by machines. Digital writing is first and foremost writing to the satisfaction of algorithms. And that makes writing, once again, incapable of performing miracles.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

From the ground up

What is Magritte’s faux pipe an enlightenment of? What do we learn from it? We learn the lesson, the great lesson, the only truly important and significant lesson we are likely to learn from works of art, the lesson of our position vis-à-vis Being. And here I am again, incapable of distancing myself from the problem of Being, bound to it, my feet immobilized, my mind defeated. Being is always there, always present. In saying this, I am stating my ontological confidence in things immutable. God is always there, in everything there is: this is religious certitude at its most fundamental. (Can you see how religion becomes philosophical? Can you see how philosophy becomes religious? Haven’t they always been?)

Above and beyond the things of the flesh and of the mud there are the things of Aether and Ideas: this is the Platonic configuration of the beings-vs-Being problem. The Aether is the region that refuses us. It’s where signs grow towards, in the hope of reaching that impossible-to-reach state of total signification.

Source: Extra Mile Academy

The (re)turn of the artist

What must have been really terrifying to the Lascaux man was the realization that Being could be imitated. To have the world out there and the work of art here, literally at your fingertips (not even in the open anymore, but enclosed in the viscera of a dark, underground space, the cave), that must have caused the frissons of terror in the first man of the arts.
Every true artist misreads the predecessor not because they find them insufficient, but because they know the predecessor is a bunch of signs, of mere approximations. And signs, because they’re made, they can be un-made as well; undone, to use the proper English word. Cathedrals have been destroyed and rebuilt, books have been burnt and rewritten, and so, the capacity of the human race to do and undo has flourished. This is an awful generalisation (an unacceptable excuse for genocides and cultural eradications), but it’s how we can state the nature of signs: the fact of their mutability. And since we’re at this, let’s say that what needs to be added to this realization is the other fact of our existence: the eternity of Being. Compared to it, we are nothing. This too sounds miserable, horrible, atrocious, depressing. And that’s the reason religions promise happiness elsewhere. That’s why there’s happiness promised in philosophical reflection (the happiness of understanding at the end of toilsome reflection). That’s why, among other things, Aristotle found catharsis necessary: the aesthetic relief for a pre-aesthetic terror.

Back to Being

When things are, as said by Vilém Flusser, in that state of primordial terror that precedes and precludes aesthetic pleasure (when our eyes are too weak to resist the explosive brilliance of the new), we are situated so close to Being we can feel the Boom. We are thrown back by the blast, in full astonishment. But then, cautiously or downright irresponsibly (whether we’re cowards or heroes it matters not so far as we have an answer, an attempt at deciphering what’s blown us away), we come back upon Being. We come back upon Being the way criminals are said to return to the place of their crime. Why do they do it? Maybe in order to clarify the terror of the moment when the crime was committed, the shock of its newness.
This return is exactly what transforms us into artistic beings; this insufficiency, this I-want-more, I-want-it-again kind of philosophy. And now, from the distance to which the blast has thrown us, we take a second look and things look less brilliant, less dazzling. Now, with the distance that affords us the courage (heroes always need distance, don’t they?; even if it’s distance from themselves, from their own security, their own instinct of survival), we can finally see the blast as beautiful.
What I think is important to an artist is this awareness of the moment of the blast: the second when Being materialized itself as a terrible event, as a manifestation of a force that pushes forth. Once the artist knows this, they also know that everything that followed (everything that became Man after the fall from Paradise) is an empire of signs. And if there’s anything that can be replicated, it’s this: the process of signification. Not Being. Being is forever unrepresentable, forever humiliatingly greater, embarrassingly more complex, painfully more laden with potential than we can even start to comprehend. So Being aside, let’s get back to the earliest moment when we have discovered ourselves as capable of doing things; when we have discovered ourselves to be capable, tout court.

An epiphany of the ground

Source: China Daily
When visiting the tombs of Emperor Qin, with its life-size soldiers made of terracotta, Annie Dillard had this wonderful revelation of the development of signs. She saw the excavations and the big picture of history being unearthed. But, most prominently, she saw these figures of terracotta men, half-unearthed, half still buried, telluric creatures about to emerge:

“The earth was yielding these bodies, these clay people: it erupted them forth, it pressed them out. The same tan soil that embedded these people also made them; it grew and bore them. The clay people were earth itself, only shaped. The hazards of time had suspended their bodies in the act of pressing out into the air.”

The terracotta men are, obviously, replicas. Ceci n’est pas une pipe applies to them perfectly (not least, because they’re made of clay too). Ceci n’est pas un soldat, Annie Dillard would have said about the men of clay she contemplated, had she been asked to give those objects a definition.
Dillard’s is a very fortunate association, because it employs things of the earth. Signs growing out of the ground to inhabit the sublunary landscapes of humanity, that’s what the terracotta army is about. Terra cotta, cooked earth, earth transformed from its brute state into a work of art, earth pressing art out. This is what all arts are about, really and truly: about growing from the ground up, about pushing signs out of a primordial foundation, about making something out of Being.
Earthen objects, telluric symbols. Earth is easier for us to understand, and that’s why all forms of art have to grow from the ground up. Earth has given us a proper location for Paradise: not in the skies where improbable mythologies often locate it, but laid upon the very earth from which everything grows. The Christian paradise is a place of gardens and trees and flowers, all of which are things that grow from the ground up. The skies, however, are harder to understand, harder to cope with. From the skies fall complex birds with wings that we’ve strived to replicate and managed only partially. From the skies fall stars and angels. They fall, and that’s the key to their understanding: the gravitational force of signification, which pulls everything towards the ground, whence they can grow then freely, smoothly, into works of art, works of the human hand. The skies have given us vague and powerful divinities, forever out of reach, in whose proximity signs are approximate at best.
I want to finish with another quote from Annie Dillard, just because it’s an excellent way of describing the groundness of arts. This time, she speaks of one particular terracotta soldier on the excavation site:

“The earth bound his abdomen. His hips and legs were still soil. The untouched ground far above him, above where his legs must be, looked like any ground: trampled dirt, a few dry grasses. I looked down into his face. His astonishment was formal.”

Source: Xinhuanet

Sunday, 6 July 2014

The terrors we've learnt to tame

All is good and worthy in the land of beauty. Dealing with the terrible truth of Being is something we've grown used to after so many millennia of representation, since Lascaux and well before it, as it may be presumed.

Source: Wikipedia

The nerve to do

Painting something on the wall of a cave, writing down a story that wouldn't settle otherwise, turning the noises of nature into harmony, all this is humans’ meddling with Being. Calling this great Being anything at all, giving it the name God (for instance) is in itself a form of human presence. What makes it human is the courage to use the meager tools at our disposal to face, interpret, and often cheat on what goes by the name of Being.
The courage to face the unknown is exactly what human creativity is about. Had we stopped at the threshold of existence for fear of the terror of all things beautiful, we would have missed a lot of literature to-come, a lot of would-be painting, of music, of sculpture, and so on.
Even when it’s pure terror, the presence of Being is capable of causing an aesthetic tickle in us. Call it the Romantic Awe, the Astonishment, the Horror of the Great Sublime, there should be no shortage of phrases to put it into words – all that’s needed is a little imagination; the courage of imagination. And that’s it, isn't it? That’s the ingredient that makes the soup boil. Imagination. In the absence of certitude, which would have made the world boringly similar, awfully foreknown, we get to employ this little function of our mind (not even the only one, not even the greatest one): imagination. Imagining means recognition (if only poetically at times) of the immensity and frightfulness of Being; but recognition that’s not a paralysis. We don’t stop being and acting just because there’s no way we could know everything there is to know. It does come, indeed, as a frustration, as an anxiety, as an internal revolt – but in the end we don’t turn dumb and do nothing.
So this recognition of Being appears in a way that already promises to deliver the representations  that we are capable of (okay: truncated, as they may be, fragmentary, incomplete, mere shards).
I may have just summarized here the major point of Existentialism: that the shake we receive from the encounter with Being is the thing that puts us in motion. We need a shock, like a car battery that requires a jumpstart. That’s us, humans, simply put.

An aside on humankind

In any case, courageous or not, it seems to be the job of the entire species to tame this cruel Nature, this terrible Being, this frightful God, this immense Grand Signifier, this whatever-it-is that’s incommensurable to us, yet representable. It’s amazing how we can mobilize our kind to fight this battle, when we are so little attuned to other major commonalities of our species (see politics, economy, philosophy etc.).
Looking from a different angle, there must be something in the way myths spring up at huge distances from one another, how the very need for religion, for narratives, for arts in various shapes and forms, coincides across the Globe. Evolutionary theories have attempted to explain this by reference to the way our species has evolved as a species; as a conglomerate, that is: like all languages prior to the Babel split.
Evolutionarily or otherwise, what we seem to be coming back to again and again is our ability to represent. And also the representability of the world as well, the fact that it is always already prepared to be disturbed and distorted by voracious subjectivity, to be dethroned from the kingdom of pure objectivity.


This forces us into wondering what representation means. Ceci n’est pas une pipe comes to mind again, because it offers the surest shortcut to the understanding of the concept. Whenever, due to our courage and the victories made possible by it, we grow so bold as to veer into arrogance, we need to be reminded of this: of the fact of the incompleteness that reigns over the empire of our representations. No pipe is the pipe, no matter how hard we try. We may fool a viewer into believing we’re Nature itself, as in the case of the ancient painter whose painted curtain fooled the viewer into believing it was the real thing. (And we laughed!) But sooner or later the true face of our exercise (The Treachery of Images) will become apparent. The problem migrates even into the more contemporary issue of serialization. See Walter Benjamin on the fate of the Original in the age of endless Reproduction, when every single copy claims to be an original in itself. But even there, even in the region of unbroken identicalness, there is – there must be – a beginning, a point of origin. Nothing is a copy unless it is a copy of something. And that’s, to Benjamin, the aura of the original. This aura cannot be removed, forgotten, ignored, hidden behind an unaccountable mass of copies. The Pipe Itself is the pipe itself!

The First

This Original, with its warming, comforting aura, is, if you like, the reminder of the glory of our first encounter. That’s what we are always followed by, that’s what we always follow, as in a continuous Möbius strip: the re-enactment of the taste of the first victory, of the first successful representation. And that’s, I believe, when discussing the issue of Being in relation to creation and creativity becomes necessary: when we, for one reason or another, forget. When our vision is cluttered by the signs we have created. Signification, if we take it at its most fundamental (without really turning everything into a professional, jargon-ridden, semiotic-laden discussion), is the production of signs that stand between us and the thing we are trying to represent. Us and the Thing. Here’s where the tension lies: in between. The pipe we paint is not the pipe.

Source: Wikipedia
This one here, Magritte’s pipe, the one we know is not the pipe, is truly a shorthand version of the thing-in-itself (the big problem of all Western philosophy, the awful barrier to our plenitude as things in an ocean of other things). The pipe in the painting is a copy of the actual pipe (if that thing really existed, in fact, since the very act of representation requires a premeditation, a thinking of the thing, i.e. a translation of it into human terms); a version of the actual pipe that is created not in order to be lit but in order to enlighten.