Monday, April 09, 2018

the social costs of individualizing voice

I am sure that there is a relation between the ideology of the voice and the hegemonic situating of the story situation in the classroom. It is a deconstructive hunch. It is worth trying to suss it out, I think, because it would say something about politics of literature in the U.S. and perhaps the Anglophone world at the moment.

The ideology of the voice is entailed by what Derrida called logocentricity – the view that writing is always secondary to speaking, always dependent on speaking. In order to be coherent, this view first has to segregate its unities – speaking and writing – in such a way that they don’t, at least ideally, overlap. This separation has to be effected so that both categories retain their essential natures. If speaking, for instance, can’t be conceived without certain traits that belong to writing, then the whole hierarchy and its claims would become unbalanced.

I won’t go through the meticulous Derridian detective work that was applied to this thesis. I want to take up an ideological entailment of the mythical separation of the two in the Anglosphere – and in general in advanced capitalism – which I’d call the “individualism” myth. Just as voice, in the White Mythology, is one thing, spontaneous and natural, so, too, in the U.S. context, a voice is an individuating property. You “own” your voice. It is as unique to you, in this view, as your fingerprints.

Of course, the deconstructive response is to point out that the voice isn’t something you ever constructed. It is an organ that is almost uniquely sensitive to history. Within “my” voice there is a whole history of parents, of social groups, of geographies, of culture. Instead of being a unique unity, my voice is a composite, a nest more than an atom. There is a lot of fascinating research about people whose accents suffer major change after brain trauma – what is often found is that the new accent will often represent circumstances from some early portion of the patient’s life. Roth, Fink and Cherney published an interesting paper in 1997 about a patient who “sustained a left parietal hemorrhagic stroke” and began to speak again, after a period of aphasia, with a Dutch accent. This patient had been born in Holland, but he’d left Holland at five years of age. What he carried in his voice was a history of decisions, or perhaps one should say of unconscious choices, that were cruelly stripped away by the stroke. There are, that is to say, negative spaces in our voices.

If the voice, then, which can be recognized by a machine represents only the surface of that crowd phenomenon, the voice that came about and is still coming about through the twists and turns of a history that is neither spontaneous nor under one’s control, than the individualizing of the voice should be thought of not as a liberating project, but as a form of discipline and control. In the theme of “finding your voice”, the finder finds a fake voice, a unity, something that represents “him” the way a politician represents “him” – as an infinite compromise in a system of exploitation, a frustration that no hedonic headlock will resolve.

Which gets me to the classroom as the story site.
Mark McGurl’s book, The Program Era, is the most comprehensive history and meditation I know of the post-war blooming of creative writing as a college discipline. It does not treat this as a disaster, nor is it nostalgic for some era of organic intellectuals. But it does pay attention to the price of this moment. One of the great prices is the forgetting that “creative writers” are specializing in a part of human action that is being performed, day in and day out, by almost every person. The story situation occurs in restaurants, on street corners, in offices, around tables – it is an incontournable aspect of human socializing before it is anything else. This aspect of writing – the skaz – seems, to me, remarkably undervalued in the current literary market. 

This, I think, may be because the skaz defies the ownership program of “creative writing” – it exists outside the classroom taboo of plagiarism, and beyond the idea of ranking. Not that ranking of a kind doesn’t exist: “tell the story about x” is a part of friendship and love – as is, frankly, “you told that boring story about x again.” These stories also change, and are often added to – the story of “x”, reminding somebody of “y”, will often change in its next retelling to echo bits of y. Just as microbes in the environment of an antibiotic will pass around resistant genes, the rhythms, types of plot, and attitude of stories will change according to what has been, so to speak, in the room.

Well, there is much more to say about the individualization of voice and and the disappearance of skaz in our literature, but that will have to do for today.

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