Monday, 1 June 2015

Writing 'as if'

Michel Foucault indicated that “our epoch is one in which space takes for us the form of relations among sites.” The relationality of our world, which encompasses everything from globalization to network theories, offers me a way of thinking about writing as a site. So that’s what I’m concerning myself with this week.


Writing is a distributive business. It is the art of putting together disparate elements. The words of a vocabulary, the rules of a grammatical system, the ideology of a culture, all these things are assembled by means of writing. The assemblage is synchronic, i.e. it works in a right-here-right-now fashion. It amasses elements in an apparatus that transgresses the immediate inconsistencies of its components. At the same time, the assemblage makes apparent order in the seemingly chaotic structure of the world.

Writing is a heterotopic site

For the above reasons, one could say that the assemblage we call writing presents some of the features of what Foucault termed heterotopia. A heterotopic entity is a structure, an arrangement of parts, but one that does not homogenize smooth similarities. On the contrary, heterotopias bring together unlikely bedfellows: aspects of life, of ideology, of discourse, that don’t belong in the same class or don’t answer the same exigencies of classification.
Foucault was very specific. He pointed out concrete instantiations of the heterotopic phenomenon: places that don’t seem to serve any of the sharply divided functions normally associated with the role of a site. What characterizes a heterotopia is the fact that it doesn’t exist exclusively in the public realm,nor exclusively in the private sphere. It features in both, and yet in none of them.
Time for an example. A church. It is a place that’s not completely public, since certain restrictions are imposed onto whom can attend services or pay a tourist’s visit. But the church is not completely private either, because circulation of visitors, worshipers, and other participants in the service is not restricted in principle. Anybody can walk into a church and see what’s taking place there, even if they are not of the specific religion that is being served right there, right then.

Source: Prestige
In order to be accepted as a visitor of a church, one will have to fulfill certain functions, perform certain rituals, execute certain gestures that commit one to the site as such. Taking your hat off or crossing yourself at the threshold determines your affiliation to the place; not to the religion in all its complexity and ideology, but to the specific site in which you are observed at this particular moment.

The way we pretend

But I would like to notice that my affiliation depends on a whim. At the end of the day, I could fake those gestures only in order to seem as though I were a member or an acceptable visitor. Drawing a cross on my chest (an act of writing in its simplest form of inscription) is a task for the completion of which I don’t have to be a Christian. But once I’ve done it, I have fulfilled the conditions of acceptance that will allow me access to this particular site: the church I want to visit today. My religious beliefs notwithstanding, I have entirely satisfied the site’s ideology, as well as its ability to work as an assemblage (i.e. its ability to contain me, the unbeliever, or me, the one whose interest is purely touristic).
This is where I want to place my understanding of the gestures we make when we write. As techné, or craft, writing does require this faking of gestures, this apparent affiliation, this game of resemblances and illusions. As in the case of the church, writing too is prone to invite simulations.
Let’s put it this way: we write as if. We write as if we were intimately accustomed to the craft of writing; as if writing had revealed itself to us in all its complexity; as if it had shown us the full range of its technical and ideological possibilities.
But, in fact, this absolute knowledge is impossible. It is impossible because it depends on temporary coordinates that are not stable. Writing changes along with the material conditions that make it possible. It also changes along with the ideological edifices and mentalities that inform its necessities. So writing is very much a modern site (a la Foucault’s definition), because of this liminality of its condition. As Lieven de Cauter, who has made it his mission to expand on Foucault’s incomplete theory of heterotopias, concedes:
“A stay in a liminal space or a liminoid space is, by consequence, mostly temporary. Some people, however, dwell in heterotopias: priests, gurus and wandering philosophers, actors, artists, bohemians, musicians, athletes, entertainers and even architects and urban designers…”
References to writing are absent here, but that doesn’t stop me from imagining the writer as a dweller in a limbo. At the end of the day, a writer does operate in this gray area where connections are made, where ideologies and materialities are brought together to coexist within the limits of one text, of one oeuvre.

Source: COE online
Like the elements that enter in the composition of Foucault’s heterotopias, these ideologies and materialities that make up writing are only partially drawn into the scheme of the written document. They do not cease to exist in their original place. They only temporarily inhabit this site, this page, this text. And that is a fact that highlights the heteropia-like condition of writing.

Playing with impermanence

A writer’s stay in the limbo is said to be temporary, and that’s for the reasons already mentioned above: it’s not because they can’t hold their ground, but precisely because they can. A writer who is capable of managing the instability of the ground that stands beneath their feet is one that will dwell happily in temporariness.
The temporary aspect of the problem of writing is also given by the fact that writing deals with newness, with perverse forms of originality that constantly erode the ground, constantly contribute, destructively, to the redefinition of that ground. A poet, as Robert Pinsky put it somewhere, is a person whose work must be placed against the grain of poetry. A poet creates things that do not exist, things for which there is no definition yet. Otherwise we wouldn’t call them a poet, a creator, a maker of things.
It’s this absence of things that defines Foucault’s heterotopias: the fact that this presence-together made possible by a poem, or by any text for that matter, is writing’s fundamental function. The text is a hub of sorts. By means of a centripetal force that brings disparities to a common denominator, it creates a new topos, one that is neither here nor there. This topos, which might be referred to as the site of writing, is the point of convergence, the place where poetry materializes.


So a poet can be said to only simulate their own presence; to fake their compliance with the rules and conventions of the business of poetry, insofar as what we define as ‘poetry’ is a set of artifacts and operations already assimilated, already agreed upon (and therefore rendered useless). Writing against these agreed-upon facts, the poet creates meaning in the same way in which an intruding church-goer crosses themselves in spite of their ‘improper’ belief.

(to be continued)