Monday, 23 March 2015

The flow of writing

Here's a concept to employ in a discussion about writing: fluidity. To be fluid: to flow, to go on, to proceed, to leak, to seep, to be restless.

Fluidity, the condition which, according to Zygmunt Bauman, characterizes postmodernity, is a state where fixed bounds, firm concepts, immortal ideas don't hold sway. Liquid modernity, Bauman's trademark concept, which he found to be better suited to define what we usually know under the name of 'postmodernity,' can be said to be defined by lack of discipline. If discipline is distribution of order in a coherent system, so as to assure of the system's permanence, then fluidity (of which liquids are a remarkable species) is, indeed, anything but disciplined. In a fluid state, things never stop taking shape; they never stop becoming. Note: liquids don't make shapes; they take the shapes of their holders. In other words, they are shapeless, in the sense of not having a shape of their own. This is, perhaps, the simplest thing one can say about water, for instance, which offers a readily available metaphor for all the liquid conditions of matter.

The liquid state of writing

Now what exactly could one say about writing that might be derived from this understanding of fluidity as shapelessness? Can we say that writing has no shape, that it cannot be captured in a form? One would be very tempted to answer yes. To do so, one could use with relative ease references to the history of the art of writing. In fact, regarded historically, writing is marked by a continuous readjustment of its borders. The history of writing is the history of writing well, and this should suffice to illustrate the extent to which this art and craft of inscriptions is prone to upset fixity. Every step in the evolution of writing, one might say, is a statement of a dialectical restlessness. Which would be a valid statement, if it weren't made irrelevant by the wrong angle from which history is employed as a concept in this case. When one points out the obvious instability associated with writing, one reaches out to a form of idealism, where the material aspects of writing are ignored. What is being pointed out instead is the evolution of writing products, i.e. of texts. And that’s how we get into arguments of genres, fashions, and other things subjected to deterioration and frequent renewal.

Source: Shinichi Maruyama
But texts are not the real materiality of writing. There is something even more essential about writing, and which precedes the appearance of concrete, visible (let's call them publishable) texts. And that is a stage of pre-signification, when a text may be said to exist in the same way a baby can be said to exist in the mother's womb in the form of a fetus (a virtual baby, a baby-to-come, a baby in the making).
This is where the concept of fluidity is really applicable to writing: at the moment before the generation of texts, when all one has is a potential. A likelihood, a to-come-ness of the text that is advancing towards its own materialization. This likelihood, which in the case of the baby is the fetus stage, is given, in relation to writing, the shape of inscriptionality. This is at the same time the potential of a surface to receive inscriptions, as well as the potential of inscriptions (not yet materialized) to do violence to a surface: to emerge by scratching that surface, by embossing a mark into it, by altering its initial purity, its writinglessness.


Writing as inscription takes the shape of the surface on which it is designed to appear. It is, in other words, limited by the edges of the container (the tablet, the scroll, the page, the screen). But – and this is crucially important – liquids are not definitively bound to a container. Their fluid state defies the very idea of stability, since liquids are perfectly adaptable to other containers as well; in fact, to any kind of container. As Bauman points out, the fluid state is a state of shifting based on the malleability of the medium. And so, in order to see writing as a liquid entity, one needs to look at its material ability to change shapes. The move from tablets to scrolls and from them onwards to codices and manuscripts and prints is but one proof of writing's liquidity. But changing material support is like changing genres. Nothing special about it, apart from the possibility of generating new ways of writing, by means of new affordances and new facilities.

Source: Cassandra Warner and Jeremy Floto

But there's something else in the picture, something that may be considered to be, at the same time, the promise and the threat of writing. And that is, again, inscriptionality. Because writing, when materialized, reveals its very potentiality (the fact that it has always already been possible for it to materialize), it follows that at the moment of inscription one is faced with two alternatives: to write, or not to write. At its most fundamental, writing is, indeed, a problem of decision. But a decision which will carry on all the consequences of the choice made by the inscriber.

Pregnant writing

That which has been written can be removed at will, and that which has been left unwritten can become inscription at a future point in time. It's in this play of alternatives that writing finds its material significance. Since it is subjected to the laws of evidence, writing is appreciated only if it has materialized; if it can be seen. But that does not mean that one cannot speak of a state before the inscription, when writing is still present, and even more pregnantly so.
Pregnant writing is writing always about to take shape. It is, at this pre-material level, a liquid entity, something that promises and at the same time threatens to take shape, i.e. to materialize to the detriment of other potential materializations.
Of course, this is not an exclusive quality of writing. The same can be easily found in all artistic forms, where in order for something to be, it must have existed before in a liquid state of potentiality. Being is being-possible.

Source: Kate MccGwire

All solid forms are first liquids. Metal is melted in order to be put into shapes, a tree is a moist and fragile sapling before turning into the hard surface used in the making of furniture, etc. It is precisely in this liquid state that precedes solidity that writing also finds its place. But to see this, one must not think of alphanumeric texts pressed into the surfaces of pages. One must think, perhaps, of incoherent scribbling, shapeless traces left on the same pages (or any other surfaces) by tools that follow not the rules of the alphabet but the rules of inscriptionality, or potentiality to inscribe, which is vaster and heavier with possibilities. One must think even further back, to a state before any inscription.

An aside about the white page

When the problem is put this way, writing appears as a form of emancipation from the tyranny of the tabula rasa. Tyranny because in its presence nothing grows; nothing is allowed to grow. In order for the white page to remain white, and therefore to remain a page, nothing must come to light. But as soon as a sign crops up, the surface is no longer a page; it becomes a manuscript.
A script produced by a hand. A handwork that makes apparent a system of notation. That's what writing is. And it is what it is (emancipation, liberation, a declaration of independence) precisely because of the liquid state in which writing exists prior to its taking shape. Without it, without the promise and the threat of its coming to light, nothing would ever exist: neither now, nor in any future. The fact that this potentiality is not visible beforehand does not matter in the least. Hindsight is a perfectly valid tool of knowledge; one can see, in consequences, the importance of a precedent; so one can develop ways of seeing causality by tracing back the progression from potential to fruition, from seed to tree, from fetus to baby, from maybe to yes, from idea to text. As Borges would have put it, every writer creates his own precursors. Just as every splash of water creates the history of the molecules in its constitution.