Monday, 26 January 2015

Writing and power

Writing is one of the most efficient forms of taming. Not because of its being a perfect vehicle for the dissemination of power discourses, but because it features important characteristics of power itself.


Handling the abstract

Systems of power interfere between world and subject, so as to direct the gaze of the latter away from the former and concentrate attention on the discourse of power itself.

Source: Elite Daily
Writing marks precisely this kind of interposition. Prior to the written sign (in what Walter Ong called "oral cultures"), the link between the subject and their world was an unmediated one. In order to speak, the speaking subject referred straight to things. He/she inhabited the utterance, as well as the world. Once the written sign comes about and once it starts acting as a representation of the world, this direct link is lost. Henceforth, the subject no longer refers to the world but to the sign. The world is lost behind a veritable barrage of signs, which now exercise their tyrannical influence over the subject by limiting their choices to that which can be written. The unwritable is ugly, undesirable, underdeveloped.
The myths of representation date back to the installation of these abstract signs. And it is perhaps not without significance that the earliest forms of writing were instruments of power, available only to the king and the temple.
The very foundation of our concept of history depends on writing and its attributes. The straight line, the undeterred progression from point A to point B, the development of a logical argument, the organization of events along a common trajectory, the sense of evolution – all of this is a product of writing. Indeed, Darwin would not have existed without the alphabet. To reach the stage where we can think of ourselves as products of evolution we need, first and foremost, to have had an idea about how things can progress, how they can order themselves linearly, how they are subject to causality. These are possible only after writing; writing, which cuts through the chaos of the world and separates things from signs, concrete objects from abstract representations.

The straight line and the promise of survival

It is when the linearity of writing is put under question that we come to realize how important it really is. In Mallarm√©'s throw of dice, in Apollinaire’s calligrammes, in all the efforts of Concrete Poetry, the experiment, the taking of the rule unseriously, is felt like a discomfort. Having to devise a new geometry for the poetic space (for the very space of writing itself) appears as a transgression. It is with this transgression and the feeling of discomfort that comes with it that power asserts itself as unavoidable.

Source: Sewaholic
Power is advertised as an ideal place of eternal bliss. Power promises the comfort of the commonplace, the corner where the mind ceases to be restless, irregular, and chaotic. There is pleasure in transgressing the predicates of power, no doubt, but this pleasure is one of the masochistic type: it takes pain as a premise.
Every discourse contains in itself the ability to turn into tyranny. And this tyranny, this ultimate assertion of power as unavoidable, is achieved through techniques of control, but also through claims to eternity. Constraint and generosity: the two major mechanisms through which power is maintained in place.
What's interesting is that, at some point, writing's major promise of infinite preservation ceases to be a promise and becomes a naturalization, a right. It becomes what-things-really-are: a fact, an argument, a certainty.
Writing promises to be lasting, and ultimately – ever-lasting. Writing preserves what otherwise would be lost in a sea of speeches. Writing is, in other words, the real solution to the problem of the Tower of Babel. It posits itself as evidence of what-things-really-are.
Life without writing is unavoidable. This kind of ultimate declaration can be found in the foundational statements of all systems of power and their accompanying ideologies.
Road traffic without road signs is impossible.
Life without a system of economic exchange is impossible.
Wealth without capital is impossible.
A city without streets is impossible.
Identity without Big Brother is impossible.
Afterlife without righteousness on earth is impossible.
All these are statements of power. They are employed in order to reassure the subjects that the system works, that it is efficient, that it is the only option there is. And so writing behaves like power, since it asserts its fundamental capacity to record, to make history, to form consciousness.
And since we're talking about consciousness, it's worth nothing that in an ideal power situation the subject gives away their agency. In writing, the subject loses his/her ability to memorize because he/she gives their ability away to writing, thus asserting writing as a system of absolute storage: the room where nothing ever is lost.

The safe haven

Systems of power create products that reflect back onto the system itself in order to idealize it by means of abstract formulas. See the rules for good writing: the pedagogy of it, the schools and libraries and theaters erected in order to glorify it, the idealization of the things of writing and of the writer's figure, the hierarchization of species of writing so as to highlight the ideal to the detriment of the marginal.
When writers themselves talk about writing, this idealization is at its best articulation. Sylvia Plath:
"And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy of creativity is self-doubt."
Here, on the one hand, writing is put forth in terms of audacity. On the other hand, though, it is judged in terms of its very means of materialization. So it looks like we're talking about two different notions of writing: the technology and the means of expression; the craft and the tools. The overlap is not at all irrelevant, since by employing the tools one justifies the authority of the craft. And why is self-doubt "the worst enemy of creativity?" Because (ridiculously simple!) by not-writing one ceases to be the subject of writing. This self-doubt is the doubt of a self that has been constructed in relation to writing as a system of power. If the writing subject doubts himself, he consequently doubts writing's ability to manifest itself in the subject; i.e., his faith in the ideology of writing is shattered. This is why, as perceivable in Plath's admonition, writing, like all power, comes about with a demand to be employed.

Source: Charlotte Rains Dixon
Access to power is often described as an act of courage. Power absorbs (in order to prevent) the rebellious energies of its factions. And so, dealing with power means dealing with that which is too much for the individual to bear. One needs to have "the outgoing guts to do it" in order to access the apparatuses of power. One needs to be a hero in order to write. With this statement, it is not the subject that is being glorified, but the discourse itself, and the ideology that is an articulation of it. Writing is not only a technology, it is also a safe haven. It is the place where one is promised freedom, provided one has correctly employed the tools.
"You must stay drunk of writing so reality cannot destroy you" (Ray Bradbury).
And so we come to embrace that which writing can give us. We partake in the "joy of writing," in the "pleasure of the text," in the "incredible lightness of being [with words]". There is a lot to enjoy in writing, just like there’s a lot to enjoy in every system of power, in every ideology.

The side that's always bright

What is fairly easy to notice is power's reflective justification. Its apparatus of self-promotion runs on references to a past that has always been directed towards the glorious present. This is the myth of the Golden Age, the narrative that keeps power alive. In the case of writing, it goes like this: without writing we wouldn't have had books, cathedrals, roads, cars, computers, marriages, burials, jobs, conscriptions, supermarkets, cemeteries, cafes, philosophy, ethics, literature, history, cards, the game of Monopoly, cinema, theater, air conditioning, tractors, profit, capital, politics, inspiration, news, distribution of wealth, social welfare, Sunday markets, fast food chains, the beautiful art of calligraphy, Chinese and Japanese pictographs, payrolls, accountancy, urbanism, laws, order.
While this is true (and it doesn't take a double-decker of intelligence to see the truth of the statement), it is also true that without writing we could have had the alternatives. The long list given above (far from complete, of course) is a list of effects of writing. It doesn't prove anything – especially it doesn't demonstrate the unavoidability of writing. It merely catalogs late developments of a system of power. This is a very efficient method of self-assertion, which works perfectly with ideologies, because it glorifies power nostalgically and sets it in stone.

Source: LHS Writing Center
Power doesn't operate in terms of the conditional tense. It is what it is, not what it could have been. There are no if's, no but's, no let's-assume's. What you see is what you get – the ultimate justification of power, its most resounding victory. All could-have-been's are obliterated. They never existed, therefore they could never have existed. Which is false, because any current form of power was, back in its day, itself an alternative, one choice among many, one path to be taken at a crossroads.
Of course, with power things cannot be presented as haphazard. What's more, power falsifies all evolution, to the extent that its current state is presented as the only evolution possible, the only end of the only road ever given. That, once again, is the way power asserts itself, how it rejects all competition.
Power aims towards monopoly, and it is not hard to see, from the above, how that might be the case when it comes to writing. Verba volant, scripta manent. In this, speech is made impotent compared to the alphabet. Hence the confidence in written things: newspapers, books, official notices. "It's true because they wrote about it in the paper" is an argument that still holds, now, in the third millennium. It is the argument of the power of writing; the argument of writing as power.