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Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

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.

  

Monday, October 20, 2014

against the writer's voice 2

In an article entitled “Writing, an essay” in the December 1907 Harper’s Magazine, Edward Martin, who was at that time a periodicals writer, later becoming the first editor of Life Magazine, counseled readers to watch for the conversational tone of the author in writing. “In good writing there is the sound of the writer’s voice,” Martin tells us, and goes on to adduce, of all people, Milton in Paradise Lost (whose voice, if Martin was paying attention, is miles away from the voice he assumed in “Animadversions upon the Remonstrant’s Defense against Smectymnuus” – or if not miles away, at least in a different neighborhood.  Of course, Martin’s sentence has crept forward through the twentieth century and become a hydra headed monster, with a slithering tongue in every book nook, but back in 1907 the ‘writer’s voice” was not a commonplace. A few years after Martin published his essay, Henry James started writing prefaces for the standard edition of his works: the prefaces, collectively, were gathered together under the title ‘The Art of the Novel” because they collectively formed a sort of unique ocassion, an ars poetica by a major American writer. The only other book to which it can be compared for extensive knowledge of the novel and intelligence concerning same is EM Forster’s Aspects of Fiction.  In these prefaces, James never uses the phrase, the writer’s voice – although he often  speaks about voices. Voice is crucial to the novelist, but they are centrally, structurally outside the novelist. In a typical passage, writing about The Reverberator –not one of Jame’s best known novellas – he writes:
“After which perhaps too vertiginous explanatory flight I feel that I drop indeed to the very concrrete and comparatively trival origin of my story – short, that is, of some competent critical attribution of triviality all around. I am afraid, at any rate, that with this reminiscence I  but watch my grease spot (for I cling to the homely metaphor) engagingly extend its bounds. Who shall  say thus – and I have put the vain question but too often before – where the associational nimbus of the all but lost, of the miraculously recovered, chapter of experience shall absolutely fade and stop? That would be possible only were experience a chessboard of sharp black and white squares. Taking one of these for a convenient plot, I have but to see my particle of suggestion lurk in its breast, and then but to repeat in thhis connexion the act of picking it up, for the whole of the rest of the connexion straightway to loom  into life, its parts all clinging together and pleading with a collective friendly voice, that I can’t pretend to resist: “Oh, but we too, you know; what were we but of the experience?” Which comes to scarce more than saying indeed, no doubt, that nothing more complicates and overloads the act of retrospect than to let on’s imagination itself work backward as part of the business.”
James’ image of the anecdote or the threads and themes of the story pleading, having a voice, goes back to the classical source of the voice as an inspiration, an externality, to the entranced poet, the overcome rhetor, or the living argument in the Socratic dialogues. Even when James comes close to Martin’s sense of the “writer’s voice”, the voice still retains that necessary externality – as for instance, when James writes of the “human rumble” of Picadilly that  it and other London neighborhoods “speak to me almost only with the voice, the thousand voices, of Dickens.”
To explain how the writer’s voice supplanted the voice of the written, the voice of the suggestion, the conversation, the place and its genius -  how in fact it became the writer’s ‘self’ that was in question in James’ “grease spot” – is to track the rise of what Cyril Connolly calls, in The Enemies of Promise, the “vernacular style” as opposed to the mandarin one in modern Anglophone lit. Interestingly, Connolly associates the conversational with the mandarin style, full of complex sentences in the folds of which one finds the interjective energy of conversation. Vernacular, with its flatness, takes its cues first from newpaper reporting – with a leveling that is less conversational than photographic.
However, the writer’s voice, in Martin’s sense, was still not quite something one found in oneself. Milton found it in the Bible and in the poets and the modernist poets like William Carlos Williams found it in the mouths of the patients he visited in Rutherford New Jersey (Williams, coming from a bi-lingual  household, Spanish and English, wasn’t tricked by the convention that American English was English). In a sense, what these people were doing was finding a way of tearing down the rhetorical scrim that kept them from hearing these voices.
In 1984, another writer, Eudora Welty, published a book of essays, or lectures, on writing, or perhaps more precisely, on writing and her life: One  Writer’s Beginnings. It was a Harvard University Press book, and it made the NYT bestsellers list, the first Harvard Press book to do so.  Only one of Welty’s previous books had gone that high. Since 1984, it might have sold more than any of her short story collections or novels.
One of the divisions is called “Finding a Voice”, which would seem to make it cousin to the kind of cliché that I am trying to swat, here.  If this is so, I’m in bad straits, opposing the great Eudora Welty. Here I was having a good time battering Edward Martin, who nobody cares about any more, poor soul. But Welty? Surely the sappiness I have been seeing in the conjunctions of “finding” and “writer’s voice” is redeemed if the great Welty puts herself behind it.
So how do I get out of these straits? Eventually I think I need to to backtrack a little to reflect on the geneology of “voice”. There is an ideological line of descent I have so far ignored, and that is the idea of a people or a group having a “voice.” Like all things in modernity, the “voice” begins in politics and ends up in art. It ends up in ways I sympathize with. I think crossed the border in American literature sometimes in the 1920s, with the Southern “renaissance”. So let’s put that in the background and see what “finding a voice” is about.




Must homefront reading

Must homefront reading about our brilliant war in Afghanistan, or reasons to never forget and never forgive.
I especially thrilled to this portion:
"Gopal, a Wall Street Journal and Christian Science Monitor reporter, investigates, for example, a US counterterrorist operation in January 2002. US Central Command in Tampa, Florida, had identified two sites as likely “al-Qaeda compounds.” It sent in a Special Forces team by helicopter; the commander, Master Sergeant Anthony Pryor, was attacked by an unknown assailant, broke his neck as they fought and then killed him with his pistol; he used his weapon to shoot further adversaries, seized prisoners, and flew out again, like a Hollywood hero.
As Gopal explains, however, the American team did not attack al-Qaeda or even the Taliban. They attacked the offices of two district governors, both of whom were opponents of the Taliban. They shot the guards, handcuffed one district governor in his bed and executed him, scooped up twenty-six prisoners, sent in AC-130 gunships to blow up most of what remained, and left a calling card behind in the wreckage saying “Have a nice day. From Damage, Inc.” Weeks later, having tortured the prisoners, they released them with apologies. It turned out in this case, as in hundreds of others, that an Afghan “ally” had falsely informed the US that his rivals were Taliban in order to have them eliminated. In Gopal’s words:
The toll…: twenty-one pro-American leaders and their employees dead, twenty-six taken prisoner, and a few who could not be accounted for. Not one member of the Taliban or al-Qaeda was among the victims. Instead, in a single thirty-minute stretch the United States had managed to eradicate both of Khas Uruzgan’s potential governments, the core of any future anti-Taliban leadership—stalwarts who had outlasted the Russian invasion, the civil war, and the Taliban years but would not survive their own allies."
Ah, but we didn't saw the head of the governor off on video, so all is well! Only terrorists do that. I saw the first show of Homeland 4 last night and this sawing of heads off is what the show uses to separate the bad guys (arabs) from the good guys (mostly white americans). The latter only whack the innocent in the traditional way, god damn it. So lets belly  up to the bar and lay down another trillion for the next Middle Eastern war. We did such a bang up job on the last couple of them.
What a jolly 13 year war it has been, boys and girls.
Fade out to the tune of I fought the war but the war won.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

against the "writer's voice" 1


Of all the commonplaces that deserve to be treated briskly with the business end a baseball bat, the “writer’s voice” might not rank up there on everybody’s list. It ranks up on mine, though, perhaps because it combines the half truth of the cliché with the snobbish mysticism of the sentimentalist, which is a thing I can't abide.
I am surrounded, all day, by reading and writing – texts to edit (as a freelancer), texts to write, books to read. After A. goes to work and Adam goes to school, this is the world I fall into. There’s one thing about it: it is silent. No page speaks to me, not the one I read, not the one I write. I’ve been doing freelance full time since 2003, and – as any freelancer will admit – the missing element is the human voice. Any voice. I go out to coffee shops sometimes to catch the human voice – the person telling his girlfriend, “he has five go-to conversations”. The old man telling the other old man, “the deal, when you do the math, brings in 9 percent a year – but I want 90.” The woman explaining to her friend,” they have a secret society and they chose who wins. So it doesn’t matter how you vote, cause they goin chose the winner.” 
Historians of reading speculate that silent reading was uncommon in the ancient world. Our first description of a man reading silently comes in Augustine’s Confessions, where he wrote about meeting Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan:
« When he read his eyes scanned the page and his heart sought out the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still. Anyone could approach him freely and guests were not commonly announced, so that often, when we came to visit him, we found him reading like this in silence, for he never read aloud."
It is impressive that Augustine goes to such length to describe an act of reading which, today, would pass utterly unnoticed – today, it is reading aloud that is unusual enough that it is usually staged in some way – as the parent reading to the child, or the author giving a reading to an audience. Texts at that time were mostly bare of punctuation, and of course the convenient form of the book, which allows one to read and write in the margins or on a notebook or when eating, etc., was still uninvented. As Jesper Svenbro has pointed out, we have examples in Aristophenes play The Knight s of silent reading, which takes us back to 400 B.C., but everything we read about rhetoric or poetics from the ancients, and everything we know about the technology of the « page » points to a culture that saw the text as a medium for the voice, a transitional object, even if a cumbersome one, something come down from clay tablets and stone walls to lodge on papyrus or vellum – a change no doubt as shocking to the unconscious as the change from metal to paper currency. 
But here is the thing for me now. When I write, I am not « finding my voice » - rather, phenomenologically, I am losing it. The transitional object has changed. If there is a voice, here, it is in the special sense of some kind of speaking in my head. The breath that made Aristotle speak of the voice as having ‘soul’ is reduced to the barest possible pulse, an electic discharge on the microscale – or so the scientists say. To me, it is like a voice. I walk down the street or sit at a table and I am turned towards these words that seem almost said before I put them down on a surface.
This is one sense in which the « finding your voice » trope actually inverses the process of writing.
There’s another, stronger sense in which « finding your voice » is exactly what doesn’t happen for me in writing, since I write very much for that moment of loss, of voluntary disarmament. I dislike being the captive of my voice. I would much rather be a mockingbird than a nightingale, a thief of voices rather than a developer of my own. It’s mimic joys I’m after.