Monday, 5 January 2015

Writings, works, (more) interruptions, victories

The phenomenon of interruptions appears most clearly to professional writers. Obviously. Not because their trade is more disposed to to such interruptions, but because it is the central purpose of the trade to halt in order to generate a text. Not only that, but also because it’s to a writer that this rest-after-creation appears pregnant, significant, full of potentiality.

Gustave Caillebotte, Portrait of a Man Writing in His Study. Writing produces separable books. Source:  Wiki Art
A writer is active in perceiving work (which is not at all absent from, say, a housewife’s scribbling of her next shopping list – a form of script which implies its own work, its own effort) in terms of such pregnant, significant interruptions. In a recent interview, Lydia Davis, the short-story writer, made this as clear as a patch of July sky. She says:
“I always interrupt work with work, either in a small way or big way.”
What she seems to point out here is some continuity. But what I would like to draw attention to is the exact opposite: the interruption. (Or maybe I should highlight the difference between work and task: work is permanent, tasks are provisional. Or maybe I shouldn’t.)

To work is to establish an end

The idea of work, then, is itself understood as something interruptable. When one invests one’s effort into a given activity, i.e. a given collation of energies, one faces the truth of work: that it has an end, that it must have an end. The cyclic nature of work (visible in work shifts, in the rolling of seasons, in the management of annual plans etc.) is everything that matters. Work is possible because it can be interrupted. Continuous work – nobody has to think hard to understand this – is exhaustion. Labor camps are the most infamous examples of this idea, extremely efficient (unfortunately) in the extermination of the human being and, at the same time, in the termination of the very idea of work.
Another thing required from work to be work is purpose. Purpose too is a development towards an end. One works because one has an aim in mind. In any activity there is a promise of a target to be reached. That happens even when the manifestations of the activity are not immediately visible. Play, which is so different from work in many respects, also shares this crucial aspect with work: it unfolds with an end in mind. A game of backgammon, which is not restricted by time (as soccer or rugby, for instance, are), is restricted, nonetheless, by means of a conceptual end: the point where someone has reached the end, the point where there are no more pieces left on the board. This is a spatial limitation, but a limitation nonetheless.
This idea of a purpose is where work finds itself restrained. In order for a game of backgammon to take place, the previous game must have been finished at some point in time (and hence the restraint of chronology becomes apparent as well). And the purpose of every subsequent game will be to reach the same point of impasse, when the idea of play requires a rebooting.
With every new game, the rules are reactivated. Every new game restarts the engine of play. And with the new beginning it becomes apparent that play, too, is a form of work, insofar as it presupposes an unfolding of rules, of temporal and spatial restraints, of cycles of rises and drops, of efforts and plans, of purposes and endings.

Scripts and exertions

Writing behaves in similar ways. With the production of every single text, language (which is writing’s plaything) gives the appearance of something having reached a dead end – something having reached the stage of its own death, its own exhaustion. At the end of a novel, of a short story, of an essay, the reader is visited by this idea that he/she has reached the final bounds of language. It is this awareness that makes the same readers sigh with relief, taking into account the fact that the text has expired, while they, the readers, keep living on, readying themselves for the next adventure, for the next perusal. It becomes apparent, with this statement, that the ending of one text is far from being a proper death, a proper non plus ultra. In reality, the end of a text gives readers reassurance. This reassurance can come in the form of a counting: I have just finished reading another text; there is one more of them in the collection of texts I have perused.
Readers do think and act in terms of collections, of series, of accumulations. Since the world of texts is so vast – and since we will, sooner or later, reach the inevitable conclusion that we are incapable of coming in contact with all the texts ever written –, every reading is a victory. With every reading, the reader manages to reduce the distance between themselves and the outer limits of the world of texts. This is, of course, an illusion – and we, readers, know it very well. But the happiness of the moment is the same, no matter what. The pleasure of the text is, among other things, the pleasure of the reading subject having advanced further into their imaginary journey: a Quixotic journey in essence, a journey whereby the subject internalizes existing texts and, through this internalization, conquers further territory within the empire of textuality.

Writing for the reader

The writer (the producer of texts) is forced, as Roland Barthes suggested, to anticipate the moves and thoughts of the Other. Ando so, writing is responding to this peculiar pleasure discussed here, which consists of a reader rejoicing at the quantitative aspect of reading, at the issue of reading as accumulation.
But what’s more interesting in this equation is that, along with the texts one has read, one has also accumulated interruptions. The cessation of a text, the gap between its ending and the beginning of the next text, is transferred to the reader along with the satisfaction of his/her having reached that end. It makes perfect sense to talk about serial reading in terms of pauses, since it is the pause that enables the counting. The gap between object 1 and object 2 is the articulation that makes it possible for 1 and 2 to exist in the first place – to exist as separate entities, as objects of counting. In order for the pleasure of reading to be acknowledged, the reader must be able to tell apart one reading from another. And that is only possible as a result of interruptions. This is how important they are to the process of reading, as well as to that of writing.

Vermeer, Girl Interrupted at Her Music. The pleasure of the text requires interruptions designed to acknowledge audiences. Source: Wikipedia
Dwelling happily in the realm of work, writing finds in interruptions its purpose and its promise. The author must reach the end of his/her text not only because he/she is a being endowed with limits and limitations (one who cannot go on forever), but also because it is in this ending that the pleasure of the reader is found. And since every writer must produce a text that anticipates all concrete pleasures of their virtual readers, every writer must give their readers what they’re most desperately in search for: the end, the resolution, the closure.

Finished things

We are made happy by the arithmetic of serial reading. In the Lydia Davis interview mentioned above, there is this long calculation of matches and fittings, which should make us aware of the possibilities of finished texts. What seems to be characteristic to her stories (what several of her readers have highlighted to the point of irritation) is the difficulty of putting these texts together in coherent series. What is, therefore, most obviously apparent in Davis’s collections is the finished nature of her texts. They are, because they are finished. They are countable because they are understandable as separate entities. And that, to various readers, comes with the realisation of an impasse: the hard time they have in putting things together. That’s why it’s important, I believe, to read the author’s own confession, which reveals the arithmetic of classification:
“[The collection] wasn’t exactly scattered. The most the previous collections had had was 50-some stories, and the new collection has about 115. So I thought, how do I deal with putting all these stories in some kind of order? And it actually started with the letters of complaint, because there are five. I thought, OK, I’ll make five sections and I’ll put one letter of complaint in each section. And I’ll divide the Flaubert stories over five and the dream stories over five. With the dream stories there are 28 of them and I didn’t want them too evenly scattered because then you’d always be coming upon another dream story, so I wanted to clump them, so there are five clumps. So within the five sections, for my own sanity, I had to divide each section into two parts. That doesn’t show up in the table of contents because I didn’t keep that division – it was for me. I put one Flaubert story in each of those two parts. So it was a rather elaborate initial mathematical organization and then I had to fiddle with it. And the same with another category, which is the very, very shortest ones – they’re only a line or two long. I didn’t want to put them together — I wanted them to punctuate the other stories. So all this took a little bit of work.”

I read the above as a long explanation of the way in which a writer sets herself up to meet her reader’s pleasure. You will notice, I hope, that the whole discussion would have been useless, had she not produced a mass of finished things, of things marked by the interruptions that render them countable. Which is the point I’ve been trying to make.

William Blake, Newton. The exertion of the writer (like that of the mathematician) is caused by the need to create finite objects. Source: Wikipedia