Sunday, 3 August 2014

Packaged Writing part II, or 2.0

To continue on from where we left off last week, where I was harping on about boxes and writing, as with many things, it is only when the box presents an insufficiency that the operation of the apparatus is exposed. Only then can we see; only then can we have an epiphany.

A typical landing card
When encountering a form like the one above, these limitations are made apparent. What if one holds multiple occupations, for example? Or, as in my own personal case, one’s name is too long to fit in the spaces provided? It forces the writers’ occupation (their selves, their identities) to fit within fourteen equal squares. Imagine if you worked as an Independent Film-Maker. Or a Community Support Worker. Or a University Lecturer. What a headache to fill this form, what an injury to your sense of self! What this displays about the form is the rather self-evident fact that it is a highly codified practice. Yet this truth can be extended to the nature of writing itself.
Writing does not contain language; it informs language. But there is much of language that is not writing; the language of gesture, for instance, or of unworded utterance (e.g. sighs, grunts). Such things cannot be truly expressed in written language. They can only be described, through the use of yet more writing.
Writing, as a practice, has in its very nature a desire to formalise, to concretise. There is a vast array of what could be called programming or coding in place in writing in order for such a technology to function; the shape of the individual letters, the accepted spelling, the craze about dictionaries, grammar, punctuation, usage, etc., etc., etc. We learn them all as part of the recognition of writing. So it is with forms, with the entire educative process bent to ensure that we unconsciously absorb the programmatic codes of the form as a subset (or perhaps, given its formative role in writing, it may be more accurately described as a superset) of writing.

An example of a digital form
The operation of this sub-code is most evident in the rise of digital forms. There’s myriad coding at work beneath the surface in order for this entire operation to function. Indeed, an entirely obscured writing apparatus is at work. The digital form is also the most rigid instance of the form. It is so strictly coded that one quite literally cannot write outside the boxes provided, whereas evidently in the physical form, there is a case for leniency. (I’ll give it that!)
Human agency, pretty damaged in the handwritten form as well, is removed even further when, in some instances, such forms fill themselves out automatically. Here one is left with absolutely no choice but to perform the Form as prescribed. Our defeat is dazzling. When we finally submit the form to the authority in charge, we can say we have reached our utter submission to the Form, to writing-as-prescription.
Form-filling is a performative action; one performs it. In doing so, one learns the form as a practice. In doing so, again, one learns practices of writing. One performs this function in accordance with the strictness or laxity that the form itself demands. Given that most formal occasions of form-writing come in the process of a request, the onus is on the writer to perform well. Forms have their own vocabularies, specific to them alone. And they’re not solely apparent in printed instances; they thrive online just as well, even (perhaps counter-intuitively) informally.
Facebook, for instance, is simply a friendship form, where one performs friendship within carefully defined parameters (e.g. the comment box), using the tools accepted by the format (notable among the exceptions from alphanumeric writing: emoticons, video-clips, informal writing that imitates speech, etc.). Regarded in this way, Facebook proves to be able to format and package affective communications, as well as digital friendship. It teaches the performance of digital emotions, which we express and experience (i.e. perform) in what else but boxes. Facebook – it’s friendship, in a box!
Facebook: Packaging friendship, a friend, in a box.

Of boxes and boxing

By now you cannot have failed to notice the presentation of this piece, superimposed atop an upside-down ACC (Accident Compensation Corporation) form. The connection is really only a visual attempt to illustrate this performative aspect of informed writing demanded by the form. It’s an experiment I thought I might play with, out of fun but also out of care. Because I care about my writing and its fate on the public stage. And I dare, when I’m given a box, to return my own boxing (in an almost-pugilistic style). I did all this by performing against the form. The difficulties of legibility cannot be solely ascribed to the palimpsest effect of the multiple layers of writing. The refusal to adhere to the strict spaces of the form, to write over and outside the box heightens the difficulty. Nevertheless, it still adheres to some formatting; as a written artifact, it cannot escape packaging.
Evidently I am getting at the arbitrary nature of writing here. Clearly I have observed the rules that surround writing; correct spelling, sentences, paragraphs, punctuation, grammar and so on, not to mention margins, titles, subheadings and captions. Of course this is justified in the name and cause of sense-making, but that doesn't make these rules or regulations around writing any less arbitrary. And what are rules if not boxes of a sort? Arbitrary invisible lines of inclusion and exclusion, essentially just codified conventions. Writing is simply language (some parts of it anyway) boxed up and packaged and sent out to all us in this form that seems so complete and indisputable.
That writing comes to us in a packaged form should really come as no surprise. When we consider that much of the early standardization of the English language came from arbitrary choices made by the clerks in the Chancery office of late medieval England, it is fair to surmise that bureaucratic writing practices have played a large hand in the formation of the written language. The form, the symbolic mascot of bureaucratic work, has underpinned and informed writing ever since, packaging it into boxes for us to fill in.