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.

Monday, 3 November 2014

Body, language, sentences, words

Today I want to be a translator. I’ve been leafing through some notes I made years ago on a book by one of the most important Romanian writers of the late-twentieth century, Gheorghe Craciun (1950-2007). He’s little known outside Romania, and especially in the English-speaking world. The Body Knows Better (2006), the book I was browsing through, is a journal of sorts. It records the thoughts of a writer obsessed with one thing alone: how to express language through the body, and the body through writing.

For Gheorghe Craciun there couldn’t be a separation between writing and body. Unlike, say, Foucault, who saw writing as a departure from the body, the purpose of which would be to create a fantasy of freedom, Craciun militated (masochistically, I would say) in favour of a painful unification of the two, one that would expose all the physical shortcomings of the one and the creative weaknesses of the other. This is why he needed the form of the confessional to write down his doubts and his hurts, without hypocrisy and without false heroism. “A man alive is a man forever undecided,” he says in one of his aphorisms. And indeed, the volume from which I am translating here is one such exercise in indecision. I chose fragments that speak of writing as toil, as obsession, as obligation, as disappointment. I find them highly relevant to the profession of writing; not as lessons, but as awakenings.

Source: Observator Cultural
I don’t want to reflect on these fragments here. I want to let them be the way I found them, scattered through the book, the way I picked them up one by one, with an impulse typical to aphoristic writings: reading them in no order, reading them for their own sake. But for continuity, I will start with two passages directly connected to my last week’s post on writing and sleep. After that, everything will be a game of combinations.

“In the mornings, after waking up, with the coffee on the table and the cigarette between my fingers, sitting on the chair, I often make long attempts at dragging myself out of the murkiness of slumber. I resemble a machine with its mechanisms out of order. My mind is almost inexistent. But the most serious thing is that there’s no dominant thought, no feeling that I’m about to hold on to something solid.
A deserted state, a state of dizziness and indeterminacy, in which the desire to find my diurnal routines struggles against the obscure pulsations of the body, which are pulling me down, in a kind of mire of pains, nausea, grief, amorphous sensations, independent of me and devoid of sense, memories of my sleep, desires to escape from the vague opacity of my flesh.
A long time goes by before I can feel growing in me that meaning-yielding situation favourable to the writing of the first sentence. That’s exactly what I’m expecting: to become capable of turning my body into a coherent sentence, a nucleus around which I can gather the filing dust of everything inside me that’s obscure, but which has to become structure, transparency.
Mornings should be eliminated from existence. I felt this hundreds of times and I spoke tens of times about awakenings. There’s a mystery in them. It’s not by accident that we consider sleep to be a form of death. It paralyzes, indeed, the structure of our rationality. And my writing, which, paradoxically, aims towards classical limpidity, cannot be satisfied with that which the body (now out of control, cancelled by sleep and by dreams) doesn’t know and doesn’t want to express. I write with the desire to rationalize even my incapacities, the hypnotic nonsense of an organism that exposes, brutally, its independence from language.”

Source: Deviant Art
“Every morning offers you the chance of writing the grand page. Better to get used quickly to the idea that you won’t, however, write it today…”
“The most terrific accident that could happen to me: to forget writing. A sentence I cannot see is a sentence that doesn’t exist. An object you cannot lock within a sentence doesn’t exist either.”
“When it is said that writing is confession, very few realize that this confession is, in fact, of one’s own sins.”
“What is writing: a form of witnessing (in which case the one who writes is a witness who's defending a truth) or a form of confession (the self-defense of someone who is being accused of something)?”
“I live in order to fill with my experiences sentences that already exist.”
“If I’m a hand that writes, then I’m a muscle that thinks. Ha!”
“We invented syntax in order to tame our irrepressible need for expression. Any syntax shows, in fact, the desire to tame whatever it is that we want to say.”
“Without love, the poison of writing. Without this poison, the imbecility of the quotidian.”
“There are times when the obligation to write (for I have become a slave to writing, the way others are slaves to automobiles, to alcohol, to love, to their career etc.) drives me crazy. That’s when I have the feeling that writing is a form of mortification, that it cancels life. It’s therefore understandable how writers give in to bohemian temptations.”
“I admit it: I re-read my work every now and then. I do it as an attempt at keeping in check, at least for a few minutes, the misery of this life of continuous obligations. I re-read my work in moments of quotidian disgust, in the hope that I’m not some other imbecile of the great throng.”
“If you’re a true writer, you can only write about the body. Not only because it is that thing that pulls you down, towards the region of inferior existence, but also because it constitutes your world. The body makes existence possible: a truth applicable to all of us, to every one of us taken separately. The aberrations of abstract thinking are always the product of those who despise the body, who labour to obliterate it, who want to get rid of it as if it were a residue. Whereas, it’s clear, everything starts with the senses. Our thinking gets its sap from the capillarity of the senses. It’s an uncomfortable condition, I know. The idea of pure thinking, of pure poetry, speaks precisely about this discomfort. But if the body is vulgar, inferior, we need to make the effort of figuring out where precisely it is situated in us (in the structure of our selves), what it looks like, what desires it has. If we want to subjugate this body we must attack it; we must, in fact, love it.”

Artist: David Tucker. Source: Second Skins
“I write, and while I’m writing I know that my body would like to be in another place. I feel this place inside my brain, I have it in my mind, behind the eyes; it is never the same. Usually, these places that supplement my writing are places in nature, hills, river banks, forest edges. I write but, in spite of having discovered inside me the other place – which is not the sheet of paper –, I don’t want to stop doing what I’m doing. I simply want to be in two places at the same time. My writing is insufficient; the abstract nature of the space where this writing unfolds makes necessary the other space, the concrete one, the one endowed with precise objects, with material objects: the open space.”
“I haven’t clipped my nails in a long time, and I’m feeling inside me something like the excitation of a clawed being.”
“Writing depersonalizes. Even those who read your work know it. If you’ve been recognized as a write, you no longer have a right to hesitation, abandon, weakness. Those who know you cease to regard you as a normal human being. You’re no longer allowed to be an individual like all others. Writing is a profession, so you’re obliged to produce. The world expects new books from you, all the time.
Well, it doesn’t really expect them. But the world knows that this un-weakened productivity is a mechanism, that this mechanism must function. There’s this idea in your reader’s mind that, since you write, you are the keeper not only of the secrets of writing as technique, but also of the secrets of life. You’ve reached beyond the stage of trials, of searches, of doubts. You are above all this. Your doubts, if they exist, will show in your manuscript.
In any case, you’re no longer a person, but an institution with a timetable. Your civic persona, with all its happenings, becomes insignificant. If it keeps you from writing, it simply means you’re no longer a writer. But if you still are one, don’t expect to be understood, don’t expect any mercy. Nobody will grant you any mitigating circumstances. It would be unfair if they did.”
“A person I know sends me on my birthday a piece of ‘esoteric’ fiction. I tell him it’s not quite well written and that he’s got some more work to do on the text. ‘But I don’t intend to build a literary career!’ he replies standoffishly. ‘Career, you say?’ I burst out loud. ‘You believe this is some kind of trade, something to assure your life fulfilment? Instead of being a writer I’d rather be a mountaineer!’”

“Where is the beauty of life? If you don’t know how to create it, it doesn’t exist.”