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Friday, October 24, 2014

against the writer's voice 3

I’ve always thought Foucault missed a trick, in Les Mots et les choses, by not devoting attention to the epistemological position of the term “discovery” in the 17th and 18th century. I don’t think that neglect was negligible, either – it points to one of the oddities of Foucault’s book, which is that it removed the conceptual history he was telling from the trans-Atlantic  context of colonialism that was one of the great material events of his donnee. Not only trans-Atlantic, but Indian and South Asian as well. Restoring “discovery” to its place would both confirm certain of Foucault’s intuitions and shuffle the order of things in interesting ways – it would give us a handle on deconstructing Foucault’s text.  Discovery is writ large not only in the period’s natural philosophy, but in its law, its ‘anthropology”, such as it was, and in the practice of adventure that traverses the disciplines. Discovery did an enormous amount of work at the time, legitimating a trans-Atlantic order that still exists, and that was built on top of the discovery myth.
“Finding” has no such royal pretentions. If discovery is a kingly word, finding is a jack in the pack. It is still related to the basic nature/culture divide, so a part of the raw essence of the discovery ideology, but there is a modesty in finding. It suits the contemporary sciences, where every researcher comes up with a “finding” – ah, the mock humbleness of it all! Natural philosophers, those baroque sages, came up with “discoveries”, a term that is hard to hide in the bureaucracy.
The above  does not exhaust the semiotic career of finding, of course. One of the great childhood activities is finding. Partly this is because children are built on a scale that allows corners and pockets to assume a greater prominence in their world. Partly this is because finding is basic to a number of childhood games – indeed, Freud’s construction of the fort/da game is built upon a relational element, the finding. In a culture that takes the child as an image of the authentic person – all social vices scraped away – finding will have a certain innocent aura.
All of which gets us to finding a voice. As I’ve pointed out, there is something going on here – something that has to do with the psychoanalytic dynamic of denial and projection – when writing, which is a manual-visual activity, a losing of the voice’s share in one’s word, is revamped as a vocal method – as finding one’s voice.
Mark McGurl, in his exhaustive study of the postwar history of American creative writing progams and their massive effect on American literature, pins the term “finding your voice” to the sixties. Mcgurl claims that there is a kind of motor common to the creative writing scene, which has three legs: “show, don’t tell”, “write what you know”, and “finding your voice”. Interestingly, he claims that the first two are cliches that one is unlikely to run into in a real creative writing course, although they still operate as the principles structuring “craft” and ”experience.” By implication, “finding your voice” – which McGurl links to authenticity – is neither a cliché nor a phrase that has been chased out of the classroom.
The creative writing program is a massive phenomenon:
“The handful of creative writing programs that existed in the 1940s had, by 1975, increased to 52 in
number. By 1984 there were some 150 graduate degree programs (offering the M.A., M.F.A, or Ph.D.), and as of 2004 there were more than 350 creative writing programs in the United States, all of them staffed by practicing writers, most of whom, by now, are themselves holders of an advanced degree in creative writing. (If one includes undergraduate degree programs, that number soars to 720.)
McGurl claims that he comes not to praise of dispraise the “Program,” but he leans more towards praise.  Elif Batuman attacked McGurl in the London Review of Books for precisely this bias, since, according to Batuman, if creative writing programs are responsible for contemporary American lit and if that lit sucks, then creative writing must suck. Batuman uses the nice, colonialist comparison of literature from pre-literate tribal societies, with no literary tradition, a condition that she claims has been willfully imposed by modern american novelists on their novels, which is why they suck.

Following the implication in Batuman’s logic, though, would give us a different sense if we think American lit since World War II doesn’t suck – and I’m of that school.

However, Batuman does find the right clue for her case in Mcgurl’s promotion of innocence – of authenticity – which apparently cannot fall into the status of cliché, and which distinguishes American literature, or the general quest of the general authors who write it, since the sixties.

Batuman’s intellectual case is strengthened, I think, by the unexamined value given to voice, even though I think McGurl is very much onto something when he connects the discovery of the “finding your voice” trope with the political movements of the sixties. In a clever juxtaposition, McGurl puts together Hirschman’s  Exit Voice and Loyalty, written when Hirschman was at the Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford in 1964, and Wallace Stegner’s creative writing class at Stanford, which was one of the most influential in the country.  Taking Stegner’s class in the early sixties was Ken Kesey, whose trajectory McGurl follows. Stegner viewed Kesey the way an irritated prof will always view a charismatic students whose very existence offends his sense of propriety – he thought of him as a “smelly beatnik”. In the sixties, odor was definitely a political issue, and smelly here is a place-word indeed. McGurl tries to deduce, from the writings of Kesey and the rise of voice, an ideological correlate of creative writing: the open system. The open system was, inherently, libertarian, and McGurl rightly discerns the conservative dimension in various sixties phenomena – Kesey himself being a Goldwater Republican. In that limited sense, “finding your voice” isn’t necessarily a liberation, except insofar as your idea of liberation is getting Ayn Rand’s message.

However, voice, politically, in the sixties, meant voice from the marginalized – from women, blacks, gays, chicanos, etc.  In that sense, if voice was fatally implicated in the kind of neo-colonialist naivete examined by Derrida in the sixties, it was also a way station to the liberatory activity that brought margins to the center, to quote the old slogan.  Of voice, one can use Goethe’s great phrase about the erroneous and the true:  Der Irrtum verhält sich gegen das Wahre wie der Schlaf gegen das Wachen. Ich habe bemerkt, daß man aus dem Irren sich wie erquickt wieder zu dem Wahren hinwende.” I’d translate that as: Error is related to truth as sleeping is related to waking. I have observered that one can come out of an error all refreshed to turn again towards the true.”

For Goethe, then, the sleep of reason creates  not monsters, but rationalists who appreciate the benefits of  sleep. Good old Goethe! And so it may be with finding your voice: denial grounds liberty.

Of course, one of the victims of that denial is “style”. While good enough for hairdressers, writers, as professionals in the program era, were certainly  being taught to avoid style – conceived as some exterior trickiness. This is of course one of those lame binaries that is continually shooting itself in the foot – for if style is merely poured over substance, the implication is that substance can appear without style, and yet this unstyled substance is a strangely receding thing – it is neither here nor there but always just beyond the horizon. In  the real world, where even the child’s crayoned caption of a picture has a certain identifiable style, datable, comparable, the idea, the imperative, to write without style looks like the  Zen road to nowhere.

It is at this point that voice, happily, comes in.

  

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