Monday, 2 February 2015

Territories of writing

I was trying the other day to park my car in a rather busy urban area, where the chance of finding a spot is usually equal to its weight in gold. I saw plenty of empty spaces in an area that looked like a balding spot on top of an otherwise hairy skull. Of course, I followed my instinct and drove straight to the place. But the perspective of parking my car was crudely severed by a sign planted at the edge of what I had taken to be a free parking lot. Unauthorized parking strictly prohibited. Tow away area. Being a literate person with a clear understanding of how division of public spaces works, I took off. What else was there for me to do? To stay would have meant to accept the punishment.

Source: Consumer
What truly stopped me in my parking adventure was a piece of writing. Two incomplete sentences, two phrases. A message direct enough to require no compliance with the rules of sentence structure. A text or, in other words, a virtuality.

The power of signs

I was stopped in my progress by something untouchable, unseeable, unperceivable. I was stopped in my progress by a fiction. But a fiction extremely powerful and extremely efficient. So efficient, it caused my immediate submission. This text, which did nothing else apart from making me imagine an entirely virtual situation where a tow-away truck would come from nowhere to tow away my well-behaved car, this text drew, for me, the borderline between the acceptable and the unacceptable. I was, when faced with this text, awakened to my subjection to written signs. Yes, of course, I could not pretend there wasn't a reality behind those phrases that put a halt to my parking. I was aware that the meaning of those words could materialise from this sign, like Alien from the stomach of its victim, and that, with this event, - unwanted, no doubt – I could find out that what the text was saying was what the text could do (Austin's theory of the performativity of language, and all that). I was also aware that, once that happened, it would be too late. I will have already transgressed the caution and will have seen the consequences.
But still, I could not dismiss the power of the text to convey all this to me. I could not dismiss the fact that the text was present there as a last line of defence before my irremediable transgression, my civic crime. I could not, in other words, dismiss the text's territorial authority.

How territories are drawn

Would it be difficult to realize how territorial writing is? Michel Butor once spoke about how similar writing and exploration are, and brought about the metaphors of the man who travels territories in search for familiar spots, or clues. When no such clues are present, Butor says, i.e. when the territory is new, these clues must be created. Someone who's been wandering about criss-crossing a desert area in search for water and had no foreknowledge passed on to him from previous generations (let's say he's a stranger who got lost or a settler who has no idea where things are placed in the new field), that person, after having discovered a spring or a pond or whatever it is that water stays in, will make a note of that place. That place will be inscribed in his/her memory as a mental formula: an equation that promises to yield the same result every time it is put in practice. A map which will be greatly aided if he manages to construct some physical representation of it, some actual notation (a real map).
What is happening at these moments, when a discovery is followed, necessarily, by recollection, is called signposting.
Now I'm going to give an example I've already used once (not on this blog, though), and which I think can explain this idea a thousand times better than I can. It's an example from exploratory computer games of the Age of Empire kind.

Here, the player sets out on a quest. He/she starts from a very small territory, considered to be their own headquarters, and move sideways to find (and found) newer, richer, more promising territories. One of the game's purposes is to reveal a map that is hidden under a black blanket that renders everything invisible. The uncharted territory becomes one's own when the player places a signpost in this darkness of unknowing, this gloom of ignorance. It's like flags planted on top of difficult, yet-unreached, summits: the Edmund Hillary kind of story.


Finding (and therefore founding) territory is, in other words, very much like putting written signs on a piece of paper, is what Butor says. Sign-writing is, indeed, sign-posting. With every letter and every word and every sentence, the writer constructs familiarity for later on; he/she makes sure there will be something to remember, something to find again in the newly-founded territory. Been there, done that – it's what the written text conveys. But this, in itself, is not a territorial claim. In order for it to become the utterance of a territory, one needs to make reference to law. One needs to make reference to law because ownership over territory is a legal matter. In the case of texts, the signposting value of writing is manifested in the oh so familiar problem of copyright.
In order to be able to sanction one's use of a text already created, one needs the backup of specific laws: the laws that prohibit appropriation without acknowledgment of source. But what's interesting to see here is that in contexts where copyright is not specified the recycling of pre-existing texts does not constitute a problem at all. To be more precise, in such cases one can't speak of signposting in relation to writing. There is nothing to be protected, nothing to raise electrified barbed-wired fences around.
Obviously, the presence of an alternative relativizes the absolutism of a rule. And so, with the kind of writing engaged in problems of territoriality, one sees the weakness of the foundation. One sees that everything is arbitrary, everything is deconstructable. Parking one's car in a sanctioned place is prohibited only by the presence of the text. Without the text, there is no caution, so no sanction, no fear. Without the text, there is no territory. Nothing to be defended, nothing to be kept clear, nothing to be subjected to. The text, the sign - this is where everything lies. This is where my fear of transgression had the better of me. This is where I lost my agency to a fictional account.

Beware of the lions

To return to Michel Butor's thought, let us see that the unfounded territory is always guarded by some kind of threat, which is in fact a .restriction. On medieval maps, uncharted territories were bordered by the cautionary message Hic sunt leones! Henceforth lions – henceforth only dangers. Nothing can protect the adventurer who dares to cross the border of the known world. Now this can be interpreted (easy task!) as a mere warning: all done in good will, to the sole benefit of the reader who might not know what to expect from the Beyond. But there is another aspect to the message. The lions in the message (abstractions, no doubt, since no lion will ever be encountered on the drawn map) cut progression short in order to return attention towards the interior. This is not so much a be-careful-when-you-enter-the-Unknown kind of message, as it is one that glorifies the interior. Here, on the inside, where you are right now, things are cosy and fulfilling. There is nothing to be afraid of. The lions are out there. As long as you're here they can roar all they want, nothing will jeopardize your well-being.

Source: Rob Oakes
What is curious in relation to this is the presence of the text. The barrier between safety and danger, between the known and the unfamiliar, is marked by the sentence Hic sunt leones. There is nothing else to stop the adventurer from skidding into the uncharted. A string of signs is all it takes. The word has been vested with so much authority that it alone can play the policing role of keeping the curious within the confines of the regulated knowledge: its proper territory.
Of course, this power is entirely virtual (like all forms of power, no doubt). The proof of this is that transgressions are (have always been) possible. The sentence written on the map is a narrative, and precisely because of this, it can be re-interpreted, re-formulated. Dante's warning (Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate) is, on the face of it, an inverted warning: it does not cause panic about what might lie without, but draws attention to what lies within. The point here is still a territorial one. What one finds here is yet another text, another cautionary formula meant to exercise textual power over the unpardonably curious. But what is said is essentially identical. The interdiction, formulated as a seemingly innocent, benevolent warning, places the text on the border between a form of reality and a form of fiction: the border between the reality of power and the fiction of transgression. Here, texts show their true power. Here, a text can change everything: compliance into transgression, subjection into dissent, legality into crime, the right of staying into the duty of never-leaving.