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 clich√©? 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)