Sunday, 10 August 2014

The coming of writing

Classical theories of rhetoric are right about one thing: writing comes to us. The history of literacy is the history of how we receive this technological implement. It is a history of how we prepare ourselves for the encounter.



Source: Xenophilia

This technology

Let’s start with this. We learn to write in school. This is where we get the wrong impression (like all the wrong impressions that will come to haunt us at various points) that we have an active role in the bringing about of writing. This is where we get the intoxicating illusion that we somehow midwife writing into the world; that we are some kind of generators.
In fact, our lives are mere by-products of writing.
Writing is a technology; therefore, it is exterior to us. Writing doesn’t dwell in the same place where we dwell. In order for it to come in contact with us, we need to leave some doors open. We need to pretend we’re letting air circulate through our dwelling, while, in fact, we’re ushering writing in – our backs turned to the door, as we’re pretending to be busy doing other, possibly more important, things. Then, once the arrival is complete and writing has taken its place in our lives, we can turn our face to the door and utter, with resounding confidence, that life without writing is impossible. In the process, we grow determined enough to punish those who believe otherwise.

The journey

One thing is certain. At this stage in the history of humanity it is too late to say that we can destroy, (even alter) the tie between us and the writing-technology. The tie has become so naturalized (i.e. we have so far advanced from the mere – albeit complex – representation of wild life on the walls of a cage), we cannot imagine anything without it. Indeed, to remove writing from our lives would mean to remove lives from ourselves. This is how well we have mastered this technology; this is how well we have welcomed it.

Source: Life as a Human
The journey of writing towards us is not a simple one. To make the encounter possible at all, we need to educate ourselves; we need to break our spirits to receive the blessing of this encounter. Without training, writing would fly past us and we wouldn’t even know its presence. Isn’t this what they teach us in schools? That if you want to be a good writer you need to flagellate yourself? That good texts come with enormous quantities of suffering? That the only acceptable image of a good writer is the Romantic one of the weeping genius? Of course, the blessing itself is a formation, a cultural illusion, a machination even; and one that, unfortunately, knows no alternative. Not an acceptable one, anyway.


The barbarian force

Among my favourite poems there’s this one: “Waiting for the Barbarians,” by Konstantinos Kavafis. I imagine the urgency of our relationship to writing in terms very similar to those expressed in this poem. Here, the encounter is at the same time a threat and a promise; a blessing and a curse, a truth and a lie, a thing we need and a thing we could probably live without. Here are the first few lines:
“What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?
                The barbarians are due here today.
 Why isn’t anything happening in the senate?

Why do the senators sit there without legislating?
                 Because the barbarians are coming today.
                What laws can the senators make now?
                Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.”







You’re getting the point, right? Senators, the assembled forum, the collective ‘us’ of the narrative voice? It’s the stronghold of our confidence in things known well. But there’s a threat approaching; a terrible threat. The Barbarian. Writing. The Barbarian. Writing. The Barbarian. Writing. Oh, no. The pressure builds up and we can stand no more. There's a crisis here. There's a moment of great impasse.
Let’s replace ‘barbarians’ with ‘writing.’ There’s no more legislation possible, because we’re now open to the force that will legislate everything. Let us learn how to write, and then everything will appear to us written. How not to fear this? How not to send the invitation?

From Shaun Tan, The Arrival. Source: www.shauntan.net
Kavafis’ poem balances the evidence of the arrival against the threat of never-coming. The city prepares itself. The city – which is us, the learning individuals – adorns itself. The king, the senators, the consuls, the praetors, the people – all of them ready to kneel before the force of the unbeatable barbarian, the stranger that comes, the technology that would teach us. Throughout the poem, there’s a long litany of things lost and regretted, a background voice constantly wailing, Hey, what’s going on? What’s happening to all these things we know? Why have they stopped working? Then in the end the charm breaks. The barbarians never come. To the perplexing reality of this missed arrival, which leaves everyone and everything suspended in mid-air, the poem answers:

“And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
They were, those people, a kind of solution.”



After Kavafis

I like to think about the adventure of writing coming to us in the terms of Kavafis’ poem. There’s a list of institutions which prepare themselves for the encounter with writing and which, in the meantime, prepare us for the same. There’s the family, of course: the first members of society, the closest to us, who already show us the proof of writing’s existence before we have had a chance of seeing writing at all. They are literate before us, in the sense of a chronological priority, but also in the sense of a demonstrative priority: their literacy stands before us, as proof, as promise, as threat, as model.
Then there’s the proof of our names, another prophecy. We come upon ourselves, so to speak, through the realization that we are recordable, that there is a name given to us so as to be easier for the others to point us out. Not to remember us – because remembering takes into account physical traits –, but to point us out. As named creatures, we are pointed out. Made of points as if of full stops. We are creatures whose relevance is given by their ability to become signs on a piece of paper.
Then, for those who attend religious rituals, there is the proof of sacred texts. All religions teach through scriptures: through things that have been written, whether by other humans or through the direct agency of divine emanations. They too indicate how writing will be coming to us, how we are going to experience it when we’ll be face-to-face with it. We learn, here and now, that the first thing we’ll ever write will be our own name.

Source: Goins, Writer
And then, of course, the schools – impossible to circumvent. What’s central to the concept of literacy is that through the techniques we learn in schools (of writing, of composing, of using rhetoric to persuade, and so on) we lay traps to catch this eternal visitor, writing. There’s always a trick to be mastered in order to capture the visitor. For instance, the trick of using drawing techniques for the reproduction of letters. Or the trick Dominic pointed out last week on this blog, of using boxes to assure that writing doesn’t go out of bounds; that it stays nicely caged, tamed, subjected, imprisoned. This, like all the forms mentioned above, is pre-scribed writing. Scribed, or scripted, before us (once again, as a chronological, as well as a demonstrative priority).

Writing is a kind of solution. But unlike the kingdom in Kavafis’ poem, we know exactly what writing is a solution of, since we have lived to see the consequences. We are ourselves the consequences of writing, the proof of its solution. We are the solution.