Monday, 30 November 2015

Because writing is such a virtual thing

We tend to equate the virtual with things that bear the label of the digital. And as such, we often fall into the trap that this association sets for us.

Source: Bioskop24
Let’s take a look at a few things. What exactly are the criticisms formulated against social networks, of all things?
  • That they’re solipsistic to the point of turning us antisocial
  • That they’re privatizing the essence of public speech and, therefore, are likely to harbor elements dangerous to society (the list never changes: extremists, pedophiles, terrorists, etc., etc., etc.)
  • That they are undermining a presumed righteous core of the public soul with their guerilla tactics
  • That they’ve put public valor under a gigantic question mark, throwing us all into regrettable immoral mire, making us a tribe of selfish cowards
  • That they spread misinformation, second-grade truths, often falsity
  • That, because of the above, they’re terroristic to a high degree
  • That they have no cause, no real cause, and that, consequently, they enjoy ranting and running about like an empire of headless chickens
  • That they’re so goddamn anonymous they obfuscate all attempts at creating a ‘decent’ (yes, the word gets mentioned pretty often!) discussion based on the acknowledgment of the enemy
  • That, because of them, enemies are no longer what they used to be
I like to think of the above as a list of phobias.
Rumors are widely spread that social networks act subversively, in the shadows of good-and-healthy, i.e. acceptable, interaction.

Source: Cinematic Catharsis
But this (this terror, this argument of fear) is not about social networks. Or not exactly about their inherent iconoclasm. This is about writing at large.
The ill sentiments caused by social networks must indeed be due to the ill sentiments engendered by writing at large.
Social networks, and all things online for that matter, have flourished out of writing’s virtual nature. And that’s a truth we must not overlook.

Avoiding direct gaze

Simply put, writing makes it possible to avoid the face-to-face. Verba volant, scripta manent – this is the dictum that articulates the power of script over speech. But at the same time, it is an argument for an act that takes place in solitude, far from the madding crowd, in one’s closet, in one’s own work space.
As Alain Badiou has put it recently, “thought resides in the solitude of labor.” As such, a thought always poses a threat, in the way the private sphere has been posing threats against the public domain ever since the two categories started being discussed together. What happens in the privacy of an individual life risks escaping control, and therefore becomes undesirable.
That’s our writing, right there. Solipsistic, relying on a separation from public life, the process of writing is as dubious as the process of thinking out of control. Publication is, therefore, the sanction of ideology given to writing. In order for writing to be validated, it needs to appear; it needs to come about. Appearing in print is the most public of forms taken by writing. Of course, writing appears in many other forms. Writing, for instance, appears when a social subject of no particular distinction becomes a writer; when he/she has produced a text that hasn’t been read yet. We’re talking pre-publication. We’re talking a state that’s more akin to thought production: devoid of public value, unacknowledged, “residing in the solitude of labor.”

Fictions we enjoy

Written words are nothing but that: words. They are not truths. Truth transgresses the printed page. We have invested writing with this strange attribute which has become a kind of obligation: to produce truth, to deal in irrefutability, to describe things as they are. But it’s always been too much to think of writing in these terms. Written manipulation, propaganda, ideological scriptures, the belief in logos – these are no guarantors of writing’s ability to produce truths. On the contrary, they show how weak writing truly is, since it needs the suspension of our disbelief in order to operate at all. Only if we buy into the fictionality of written discourses can writing work as a persuasive tool.

Source: Cinematic Catharsis
Not to mention that persuasion itself is not production of truth but production of assent. If I’m good enough at manipulating rhetorical devices, I can persuade you of anything. Even of an untruth.
If this sounds like prestidigitation, it is. Magicians do precisely that: they make beliefs. They persuade you, against your better judgment, that a coin can be fished out of one’s ear or that rabbits can inhabit peacefully the insides of a top hat.
But we know that all of the above is untrue. We know, yet we indulge. We know that writing gives birth to fictions, yet we take these fictions at face value.
Since we know with certitude that writing produces deceits, we know, at the same time, that the pleasure we get from it is a guilty pleasure. From Plato onwards, writing has been reprimanded many times for this departure from truth. And so, to trust writing is to trust something that is fundamentally flawed. The direct consequence of this is that we cannot swear allegiance to writing unless we reinforce it with the armor of ideology, which is about believing in spite of the otherwise.

Afraid and alone

Writing had to withdraw into the writer’s solitude, since, like all forms of prestidigitation, it must rely on a secret, on a truth untold and unsayable. Public writing (if such is ever allowed to exist) must be avoided precisely because of this sanction of the public sphere, where standards of objectivity demand full display.
What we do witness publicly is not writing but its offspring, reading. The act of reading is the public negotiation of the written discourse. It’s where we all end up as soon as we’ve been spotted by an audience, be it as small as it may be – the audience of one, if you like.
Writing is, for this reason, suitable mostly for introverts or for those afflicted by speech impediments. For those who, in the able words of Rammstein, are disposed towards declaring: “wir haben Angst und sind allein” (We are afraid and alone).

Source: Bergen Filmklubb
I’ll leave it to the suspicious to return to the beginning of this post and draw the lines between writing and social networks, then. I hope they’re clearer now. If they only listened to Myra Breckinridge, the job would be so much easier: “The novel being dead, there is no point to writing made-up stories.” If we know writing to be what it is, is it still fun to indulge in its abilities?

Monday, 16 November 2015

In defense of bad reading

I have a problem with the customary reproaches leveled against those who, it is said, don’t read seriously and in-depthly (apologies for the adverb but I couldn’t resist). Deep reading. Such an interesting concept! One that makes me think of diving rather than desk-bound perusal. But that’s just me.

Source: Contently
We want reading to be deep. That’s not all. We want all reading to be deep. All of it, page after page, book after book. We want our minds busy in an almost professional manner. Like academics, if you get my drift. Because academics – well, they know how to read well. Their reading is perfectly tuned. It can spot an intention, the hint of a meaning, no matter how small. The reading of an academic is able to tell you, on the spot, what the author truly wanted to say. You see how this kind of reading is x-ray-like. It can pierce through a book, it can see beyond the visible. Reading of this kind blooms like a flower that’s taking itself very, very seriously.
But there’s something to be said here, before we go mad with passion. A question. How many people do read a book with all these good intentions? Academics, students, scholars. Ok, all ticked. But who else?
Behind this question stands, obviously, the generalized concern I’ve noticed (and I’m sure I’m not the only one) with the perils of new technologies.

Hands-free reading

For a long time we complained, if I remember correctly, that not enough was being read. That books were waiting in vain to be picked up from their shelves by individuals too interested in watching tv or playing video games, or simply being couch-potatoes that fried slowly in the oil of their own apathy. Then something happened. (In the way technology comes about, it always seems as thought it has appeared out of the blue.) Tablets and smart phones came about, cloud storage and online databases, and now there’s more reading taking place than ever in the history of humanity. Are we satisfied, though? No. We’ve reformulated another complaint. Those who were not reading before are now reading incorrectly, inappropriately, irreverently even.

Source: Academic Sciences
The problem with this new complaint is primarily a strategic one. It belongs in the infrastructure of learning. How is one who wasn’t reading at all supposed to have learnt, by his/her own accord, to read like a pro? How? As we have agreed before, they’ve never had the tools to be Readers. Never. They never liked it, they never had that special chemistry within their souls, they never did what was necessary. Then why are we complaining about them? I’ll leave this question here (no need for an answer) because I’ve got another one at the ready. Haven’t we somehow forgotten that most readers read for a kind of pleasure that’s more akin to movie-watching and videogame-playing than to any highbrow objective? Take a look around. There are more readers at the beach, in a train or bus, on a bench in a park, in bathtubs and on toilet seats – than in the world’s libraries. Note: there’s nothing wrong with reading like that. What I mean to say is this: most readers do it because they want to relax. Reading like a pro is painful. It requires a pen or pencil in one hand, a library in the other (to find concordances, to draw parallels, to note down peculiarities of style and intertextual similarities). That’s why reading like a pro is usually limited to the pro.
The reader who seeks relaxation wants their hands free of any prosthetics. Hands-free reading is for fun. It is for giggling when a funny passage comes about, for the heartbeats to accelerate when suspense kicks in, for pallor to settle on one’s face when he/she comes across a horror scene.

One way of reading

The complaint against new readers comes from a minority group: the careful readers, the practitioners of close reading, the examiners for whom reading is not skimming but perusal, not browsing but inspection. This minority group forgets an essential aspect of the story they tell: they’re trained to read this way. They’ve spent hours and hours educating themselves, turning their attention from the easy bits or complicating the same to the point where they’re turned into something unrecognizable. These readers deal well with difficult texts because they’ve made those texts difficult. Self-flagellation is the favourite technique of the readers with busy hands. They don’t accept ease because, for some reason, ease comports the risk of stultification. It’s like looking at a horse that’s gone through expensive dressage and not seeing that the same animal is equally capable of pulling a cart.

Source: PsyBlog
With reading, though, the problem is that its high horses are taken for granted. There are rites of passage throughout school, various forms of taming and training, all meant to educate the reader, to make them sensitive to the finely tuned and the highly pitched. But what should happen with those who haven’t (for one reason or another) acquired the techniques that guarantee their acquisition of greatness? Those who have fallen through the cracks and yet still want to read a book the best they can? The best they can!
This is where my problem lies. In applying that one-size-fits-all adage that says, ‘a book can be read in a million ways.’ If that’s the case (and it must be!) then hands-free reading is also a form of reading. So let’s accept it. I don’t care that it doesn’t add value to the ontology of reading. I don’t care that it leaves the reader speechless at the end, incapable of articulating a thought, of formulating a cogent analysis. It’s a form or reading and that’s that.

A perversity

For those who want to reach depths, there’s room enough to develop their own passion. That’s because their reading is also one form of reading. It’s not the absolute form, it’s not the only one. The democracy of intellectual matters contains, like the democracy of politics, strong binary opposites: high and low, poor and rich, adventurous and timid.
What goes unacknowledged in this story is a simple fact of personal obligation: I must not impose my pleasure upon another subject. That would amount to tyranny. To perversity. I can draw attention to the fact that other options are likely to exist – that goes without saying. I can, if I am smarter, better equipped, luckier, I can point out the richness of the world of reading. But I must not talk about reading in terms of preferences. De gustibus et coloribus non est disputandum. I must not pull my nose in disgust when I hear another’s preferences. My likes cannot be another’s, unless by accident. If I belong in a community of interpreters (as Stanley Fish likes to put it), that belonging is the result of pure chance. It’s not unlike being born in a particular language.

Monday, 2 November 2015

The question of the frame is always wrong

We learn that the most terrible of things, the stuff likely to return in nightmares, might very well be this: to keep your eyes on the frame, only to realize (after the act, after the pleasure) that what had mattered all the way had happened outside the frame. To spend hours with your eyes fixated on the stage only to learn that the show was somewhere else; that what you watched was only a detour, a joke, an inexistent show. Painful, isn’t it? Downright embarrassing, one might say. But still.

Source: Hippo Wallpapers
The question we formulate as soon as we become aware of the risk is: how to avoid all this? How to stop this embarrassment from happening? But the question itself is greatly misguiding. At the end of the day, all there is for us to see is the frame. The work of art is presented to us on that stage, through those actions. There’s nothing else but the stage. It’s what we’ve paid for, so it’s what we’re getting.

Don’t kill the messenger!

To watch, to read, to contemplate – these things need to be considered as if. Always as if. As if there were a show on stage that could be taken literally. (All writers want, ultimately, to be taken literally – otherwise why would they write? Why would they invest so much effort into the writing of letters?). As if there were such a show but knowing all the way (sensing!) that there’s never been any literal thing to behold. This is exactly like keeping your eyes within the frame but seeing only what's beyond it.
Every piece of text sends us away from itself, into the nebulous uncertainty of meaning. But the movement-out happens via the frame. In order to go beyond you need to start from being within.
We know too well that meaning is not on the page but somewhere else. It might be in us, readers. It might be in the encyclopedia of the world: in this world which, like a vast encyclopedia, contains everything that has ever been possible to write, everything that has ever carried a meaning.
The page is only a messenger. Then every time we have an account to settle with the page we must, at least, remember that the messenger must not be killed. The same goes for the stage, another materialization of the page. Or the painting surface, or the block of marble. There’s no meaning in them at all. Meaning occurs when a well-intended human individual starts filling them with his/her intentions.
A dormant stage, let’s say before the beginning of a play, is nothing but a wooden structure which might indicate a place where dramatic pieces are staged every now and then, but that would be all. The stage-in-itself can only have a repeatable meaning, one that is carried on from one play to the next and never changes. Change occurs only when an individual play is being acted out, when the frame is filled, when it becomes significant to look at the interior of the frame and ignore the rest.
The art of the stage is (no need to remind anyone) an art of illusions. Creative prestidigitation. But the success of these deceptions depends on the ability of the stage to channel attention, to make itself the object of some mystical adoration. Like an ideology, a stage makes us believe, although we know that what takes place on it isn’t true. In this case, looking outside of the stage is not recommended, unless we want to spoil the show.

The frame is a territory of forgetting

This means, simply, that the frame cannot be ignored. That it’s impossible to behave as though it did not matter. Because it matters greatly. The frame is where the spectacle of the work of art is set out to unfold. A work of art in itself can be called a work of art precisely because it can be delimited. Art is not existence, not disinterested existence. It is precisely the opposite of that, the counter-argument placed against the argument of what can be without signifying.

Source: USC Institute for Creative Technologies
Insofar as existence is without meaning, looking outside the frame of art is looking into the non-signifying immensity of existence. Not a very encouraging perspective for us, dwellers in signification, since reading outside the frame means reading outside of meaning. The only outcome of such reading-outside-the-frame must, therefore, be non-signification. The absurd, perhaps, although there’s still meaning in there. (The absurd is the meaning of non-meaning, but the non-signifiable transgresses even this minimalist meaning, insofar as it cannot even be postulated as potential.)
Writing, then, makes meaning. It draws a frame because the intensity of framelessness is not conceivable to the subject who has learnt to speak, who has learnt to use language in order to produce. In order to produce anything. There’s no way one could forget (as in the Christic kenosis) the presence of language, which is the most obvious production line of sense. The frame of language (which creates a territory within the world) is always there, with us. And this frame produces further frames. Every employment of language cuts through the world, takes a slice out of it and models a territory that is supposed to stand alone. Alone, as well as independent from the world.

There’s something artistic in being us

With this, we may turn the discussion towards a different sphere, where we might be able to touch on the issue of alterity. Here’s the gist of it. To be able to see outside the frame I need to be not-I. Insofar as I is a subject whose fundamental attribute is the capacity of articulating his/her own individuality, it is not an I that this problem needs to be formulated as, but a you: an externality. I am a you if I am capable of seeing myself from outside. And if I am, if I can have that insight that only the Other can have (because the Other belongs in the realm of objectivity, where things are said to be things-in-themselves) I can only address myself in the second person. Through this conversation between the I that’s not yet formulated and the he/she/it of pure objectivity, I can rise towards myself as an Other that can be addressed, that must be addressed.

Source: Backstage
So when I’m talking about externality and about frame, the model I am emulating is the one I have learnt from addressing my own frameness. If I address myself as a you I know instinctively that outside of this conversation, beyond the limits of this logos with myself, there is an objective expanse that includes the frame, that includes the self, that swallows up the I. From here, from this realisation, I can extrapolate so as to understand the art that surrounds me: the artistic nature of being-human. The world can only be experienced aesthetically, as a representation, as a ‘best guess’; and everything starts from here.
Then (to return to the question formulated in the beginning) why is it so terrible to look inside the frame when the show is somewhere else? Why is it embarrassing to look askance, when the show is always somewhere else? The problem is wrongly put, since there’s no way out for us, only a concentration towards the interior, an intensification of our artistic nature.