Monday, 23 February 2015

Writing to address the reader

I want to talk a little about the relationship between writing and rhetoric, because the two are tied in a bundle often taught together in schools and which, therefore, makes them impossible to separate.

The rhetorical aspect of writing consists, of course, of its intention to persuade. To persuade, i.e. to change the state of someone's mind. Where someone should be understood as a generic addressee: an individual, a mass, a culture, the whole world of writing and reading.

The address

There is, in persuasion, an unpronounced resistance to utterance. The addressee doesn't want or doesn't expect to be addressed. The address takes place in a call-for-attention that is in itself uncalled-for.

Source: Rock Surfers
So writing comes about as a duty to formulate a truth in such a way as to render this resistance inoperational. If you know how to write down a demand, it will grab your reader even if he/she was utterly uninterested in what you wanted to say in the first place. This would be, in rough terms, the primary principle of rhetoric.
There is this anecdote in Amélie Nothomb's Life Form, where the protagonist tells the story of how she learnt the art of addressing audiences.
“Already at the age of six I was forced by my parents to write one letter a week to my maternal grandfather, a stranger who lived in Belgium. My brother and my older sisters were subjugated to the same regime. Each of us had to fill an entire letter-sized page addressed to this gentleman. He answered with one page per child. ‘Tell him what happened at school,’ my mother would suggest. ‘He won’t be interested,’ I retorted. ‘That depends on how you tell it,’ she explained.”
The grandfather is, obviously, a character in the background, someone who's not here and now – a distant audience of the kind all forms of writing must take into account when they play the game of persuasion. But what is of utmost importance in Nothomb's allegory is the problem of the address itself. Note that the grandfather has never asked for those letters. Even if he had (the novel doesn't show this to have been the case), the situation wouldn't change, because what is certain is that the demand to address him (the demand formulated for the author of letters) comes from elsewhere. It is the mother who operates as the one who calls for writing. This demand is an external demand, something called-for by the present rhetorical situation, in which the grandfather represents the invisible, mute, unknown reader.
And so, in the first place, the writer is moved by puzzlement. The writer doesn't know what stands before her. The writer is taken by surprise by this demand for an address that is uncalled-for.
Behind this puzzlement is the reality of the fact that the writing act comes about not only without knowing its invisible-but-present audience, but that it also comes about as an addressed unpreceded by a call. Most of the books of the world have been written as the world had no need for them. In order for a need to become apparent, one has to be aware of that which is desired; one has to know it. I desire that which I do not have, but which I can see present in the world: unattainable by me, and therefore desirable, but desirable because already-seen. So a text that doesn't exist in the first place cannot be wanted. Lists of books-to-read work precisely because those books exist and the would-be reader knows of their existence.

The desire of persuasion

With persuasive writing, the desire is that of convincing an audience that appears to the writer as a nebulous presence: something we are sure exists out there, but which we cannot immediately associate with our own writing act.

Source: Pick1
In other words, the fact that there is an audience doesn't mean that this audience is my audience. To make this audience mine I need, first and foremost, to come forward with a request to have its attention. Ladies and gentlemen is that kind of formulation. Neither the ladies nor the gentlemen are known to me, the utterer. They are just common nouns – known to exist but not bound to listen to my utterance or to read my argument. Writing comes to address precisely this lack of connection between me and my audience. It is through writing that the connection is written: formulated the way all uncertainties are formulated, by means of a call into a rhetorical void. Everything that follows will be fairly easy to perform once the audience is here, with me, walking along, nodding, turning their eyes towards the elevation whence I pronounce my address.


Because the reader is unknown and must be brought to the table, he/she needs to be offered something. The address of writing is, in essence, an offering to the reader. I need to give something away in order to gain my audience. I need to tickle the indifferent spirit of my audience in order to make it aware of my presence. That's why the beginnings of all written texts need to be renunciations of the author's essential hermeticism, his/her unavoidable reference to a self that is not translatable, not understandable without mediation. To put it otherwise, by writing I make concessions to my reader by facilitating their understanding of me (and my text); i.e. I cannot remain sufficient to myself. My writing marks a rupture in my self.
In this respect, all texts are rhetorical, even those that don't purport to be exercises in persuasion. A shopping list is the visible form of the desire present in me but invisible to the exterior. A shopping list is an interesting exercise is writing, because it takes its very author as its audience. Of course, the purpose of the writing act (because purpose stands on an equal footing with the address) is to store information that is threatened by the plague of forgetting. But at the same time it is (and the shopping list shows it without a shade of doubt) a way of pointing out to the self that the items written on the list are truly desired.
Once I see potatoes on my shopping list I can swear I need potatoes.

Saying it well

Things may be more complicated when it comes to literary productions, or the highly-elaborated productions in the department of rhetoric and persuasion. But in essence they are similar to the situation described by the shopping list. The author puts forth a call for recognition that the reader needs to read accordingly. If the reader fails to read, the text has two options: it will either be horribly misread and therefore killed, or it will be read differently, and therefore brought to life. But in both instances, the separation from the writer is immediately apparent. After the address, anything is likely to happen.

Source: MC's Whispers
This is why eloquence is so important. Eloquence, or well-saying, is the means by which utterances are formulated so as to make sure they hit their target. The target, i.e. the audience. Eloquence is the long-exercised aim in a game of archery in which the arrows are always shot in the dark.
Knowing-your-audience, the desideratum of all rhetorical situations, is therefore nothing but a red herring. There's no such thing as knowing your audience. Simply because your audience isn't there for you to see, and neither is it there unchanged, set in stone, like a fruit waiting to be picked. Audience is not even something to be named in the singular. Audience is multiplicity: it evolves constantly, sometimes exactly while it is being addressed. Not only that, but the text itself can be approached by audiences never considered by the writing subject. What's more, some of these audiences do not approach my text in its totality but only for the parts that serve their present interest or curiosity.

Faced with these perfectly volatile conditions, writers are forced to return upon the address as the only real chance of making a move. Their ability to call for attention is the only weapon to be used in this battle of the spirits. Their act is not a statement of power but an invitation. They do not conquer, but offer to sacrifice. And this offer to sacrifice happens, oddly enough, when nobody is requesting it. Isn't writing quite something, then!