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.