Monday, 26 March 2007


I went away for the weekend, to stay with J's friend Butch J in her house in Kennet River on the Great Ocean Road. Dude, the sea is big. We saw many animals and I had many thoughts about space and technology - coincidentally the subject of my book. Because it's such an intensely mediated landscape. Two examples:

(1) I'd already (always already?) bought a postcard of the Twelve Apostles to send to my parents (hello, by the way, I'm going to send you a postcard soon), and so all the time that I was standing there on the boardwalk with the other tourists I was thinking Ooh, I'm in that postcard!

(2) Conversation with J and Butch J, about the lack of traces of human occupation in the landscape making it possible to imagine what it was like for the white 'settlers':

I: Except, you know, for being in a hermetically sealed, climate-controlled car going at 100km/hr.
J [I forget which one]: But if we weren't in the car, we wouldn't be able to imagine it!

Which was so spot-on, that relationship between imagination and... something like authenticity? Because of course if it had been 1800 and the road - the vantage point from which we look at the landscape in comfort and at a particular speed - hadn't been built yet, we wouldn't be able to look at the landscape and imagine what it would be like to be discovering it, because we'd be too busy hacking our way through gum trees and avoiding deadly spiders and sweating and being rained on and falling down and breaking our legs. You need a certain amount of speed and a certain quality of road to be able to survey the landscape in such a way as to imagine it - have a non-bodily relationship to it. Imaging technology (cameras, imagination, speculative fiction) always opens up the territory first - I read some good essays on that in relation to medicine and the way we understand our bodies, once, but I can't remember where.

And it was a great weekend in lots of other ways; mediated and modern (and uneasily complicit with colonialism) as it was, I loved driving through those landscapes, and getting to see glow-worms at midnight in the middle of nowhere - glow-worms are awesome - and watching birds fight over seed on Butch J's veranda, and looking at koalas and wondering how they balance. And the coast is so huge and so beautiful. And on the way home, after it got dark, we got into a hilarious discussion of butch/femme and their varying styles of EVIL, which ended up with us listening to songs by Mary Gaultier and Connie Francis in alternation, imagining it as one of those hip-hop style contests in song,* with MG in the butch team (I know I hurt you/ But I never meant to.../ You know that I loved you/ You know that I tried/ You know that it hurt me/Each time that you cried)and CF in the femme (Darling, please don't hurt me;/ Please, don't make me cry/ I don't know what I'd do if you'd ever say goodbye/ Remember -- I love you so much,/ And love is life's greatest joy/ Please don't break my heart like a child breaks a little toy). (CF won by miles.)

But what I really want to write about is writing, and I'm worried it's going to turn into one of those blog posts that never actually gets written because it's never the right time to do it perfectly, so I'm just going to get it down here and now. Apologies for some roughness/sketchiness in the thinking and the expression.

I just started David Wills' Prosthesis today - it's absolutely brilliant, by the way, you theory types should all read it - and I was scribbling down notes on the back endpaper** because my mind was firing so fast, it was lovely. This will be but a pale shadow of my excitement, I bet.

Okay, so the reading of this book is hedged about by a bit of anxiety, because it's published in the series I want to approach and because it's by one of the external examiners on the thesis, so reading it, on the level of fantasy, is really reading a judgement on my thesis (Hmm, so David Wills thinks you should write like this... that must mean he thinks my thesis should be more like that!) So it's making me think about the stylistic choices that I'm making in writing the book-of-the-thesis, and how they relate to the choices Wills has made. Because as well as being an incredibly clever book, this is an intensely, intensely poetic book. And it's in the poetry that the thinking happens and is performed. And one of the criticisms that my internal examiner made of the thesis was - sort of - that it wasn't poetic enough: that it defended itself against the more interesting, wilder, consequences of its thinking by miming or feigning obedience to academic protocols (quoting 'authorities' to justify particular moves, in particular).

So I've been having to think about the value and importance of that poetic mode of writing (theory). When I say 'poetic', what I mean is something which strives not to repress any of the effects of the language - the opposite of the way that 'scientific' discourse tries to be 'transparent', ie not to let any of the non-referential effects of language affect the way that the writing signifies. But in poetry, everything (potentially) is significant: the sound of the words, their metaphorical dimension, their relationship to other poems. And also, poetry is from the Greek word for 'making' - so poetic discourse makes and/or is made, it's an artifact, a thing, not just a 'representation' of a real thing that remains 'outside' the writing. And some theoretical writing tries to work like that, and it's important to me that mine should, too. But my writing looks and feels very different from David Mills, even when it works: my ur-sentence, the one which will not appear in the book and didn't appear in the thesis but has exactly the effect - the tone, the style, the feel, the something - I want to get is:

Aeneas loves Dido because she is a bee.

See? Nearly monosyllabic, nice and Anglo-Saxon, not overly Latinized, short, easy to read, and with a sort of deadpan indecision over whether that 'is' is metaphorical or not. I love that sentence.

But David Wills writes sentences like this:

From earthbound gallop to quadrupedantic flight, from leg of flesh to leg of steel, it is necessarily a transfer into otherness, articulated through the radical alterity of ablation as loss of integrity.

So, given the aforementioned anxiety coupled with my huge admiration and respect for what Wills is doing, I've been having to think about what I mean by poetic, and why he's written the book the way he's written it, and whether if I want to be considered in anything like the same breath as him as a deconstructive scholar, I need to start writing more like him. Because I absolutely agree with his (and others') critique of 'plain speaking', of a kind of writing that poses as 'easy' and 'clear' and so on.

Because that kind of writing - that construction of a medium of communication between author and reader - often rests on a kind of 'common sense', which means that in order to experience the writing as simple and clear and legible, the reader has to sign up to a certain set of assumptions about language, about culture, and about the world. And those assumptions inevitably repress a good deal of the signifying dimensions of the writing, which is methodologically problematic when what you're writing is a reading of texts which aims to restore those very dimensions.

But there's more to it than that slightly arcane methodological concern, I think. Because some of the assumptions that make texts 'clear' are politically or culturally dodgy. I've noticed this mostly from a queer perspective, when I point out that certain texts or images only make sense if you assume that, say, 'female' and 'attracted only to men' are synonymous, and sometimes people get very impatient with me about that, as if I should be expected to do the work of translation which actually excludes my whole existence and the only reason I'm not doing it is to be difficult. I can't think of a good example here, but here's a not-very-clear one instead, which might be more appropriate anyway.

Like it's 'clear' that the mixed-sex love story in Singin' In The Rain (Don/Cathy) is 'really' in the text, and the same-sex love story (Don/Cosmo) is only in the subtext/the eye of the reader/ etc - because Don & Cathy end up together, and no accommodation is made in the plot (as series of events linked by cause-and-effect) for the end or renegotiation of Don's and Cosmo's relationship. But that doesn't necessarily make it 'clear' that all the intimations in the text of a loving relationship between Don and Cosmo just don't exist: the purely-heterosexual reading of the film is a product of interpretation just like any other reading of the three-way relations between the protagonists. It's just that the film, and the institutions of reception according to which we read it, work to efface the work we have to put in to see how 'obvious' it is that there's no sexual or romantic element in the relationship between Don and Cosmo, as there is between Don and Cathy. (Just like it makes people impatient sometimes when I point out that seeing 'female' and 'attracted only to men' as synonymous actually requires me to do a fair bit of work - it's not 'just true', or 'obvious', or 'natural', or 'right').

John Mowitt, in Text - another book which is made of awesome - talks about how, when we write, we should struggle to make what we write 'piratable' by people yet to come, whose struggles may be unrecognizable to us. And that struck such a chord, because... Okay, this is a principle that's been guiding me, in my writing. I write things down, and I ask if they're 'true'. That works well enough to produce statements which I'm happy to publish and stand by, but I've never really managed to work out what I meant by 'true'. But now that I've read Text I think Mowitt's idea of 'piratability' is pretty close to it. In fact, I think 'piratability' is the answer to a question that was posed at a debate I took part in at Bristol about a year ago: if you work in the humanities - particularly if you engage with history - but don't subscribe to 'realism', to the idea that things 'really' happened and are later represented in history - then how do you make sure your work is ethical, is not simply serving your own interests, reflecting your own position, your own self, back to you? 'Piratability' seems to answer that question to me - it's also made me a lot more kindly-inclined towards scientific discourse, which is absolutely trying to be piratable, to produce statements which will be true - which will work - regardless of a reader's cultural and historical position.

All of which means that being in Australia - the disorienting, dislocating experience of being in this landscape, which is so strange to me in terms of all the natural and cultural forces which shape it (the climate, the way the land, the sea and the sky fit together, the plants and animals, the recentness of white/European forms of settlement, the practices and technologies which mediate and have mediated, in the last couple of thousand years, between human societies and their terrestrial environment) - is actually incredibly good for this book. Because the book's about the relationship between sense-making practices and the political/territorial landscape of the Roman Empire (ie, roughly, Europe). And Australia is so visibly*** and constantly different from Europe that writing the book here reminds me that I need to work, all the time, to make it piratable by non-Europeans, not to opt for a mode of writing which is 'clear' at the cost of requiring the reader to fill in gaps with specifically European knowledges or traditions. That is, if I say something about 'the land' or 'the earth', or about 'human society' being constituted by agriculture, then I need to make damn sure I specify where and to whom 'human society' is defined as being constituted by agriculture. Because otherwise I'm saying that I don't care if I exclude certain societies from humanity. Which is about as unethical as you can get.

And - to get back to David Wills - it's that kind of truth-as-piratability that it seems to me Wills is getting at everywhere in his book: it's that specificity that, in the end, makes his writing 'piratable', because he's not using universalizing synechdoches which name the part after the whole ('men' and 'women', 'humans', 'society', 'the earth'), but always specifying what he means. And part of that process of specifying is in the poetic quality of the words: because poetry says that there are no synonyms, that it matters whether you say 'meadow' or 'field' or 'paddock' or 'greensward'.

So - that was my long meditation on why poetry is an indispensible part of the task of theory, but also that was how I figured out for myself why I can do poetry in a different way from Wills, as long as I keep the ethical aim in view.

And this question of poetry and piratability is related to the other thing I was thinking about, which is that writing is a place to find your own limits - to think, experience, and 'do' things that aren't open to you in your socially-constrained, embodied life. That's not a new thought, I know - I'm thinking of Toni Morrison's amazing Playing in the Dark, where she writes about the ways in which writing fiction relates you to other ways of being through the creation and inhabiting of characters, or Calvin Thomas's hilariously deadpan exposition of Cixous' 'writing is the passage of the other in me' via anal sex in 'Must Desire Be Taken Literally?' - but it's usually talked about in terms of identification (as in Morrison) or transgression (think of Dennis Cooper or George Bataille or anyone). And that's not quite what I'm talking about, though it's not completely unrelated: but I think that identifying with characters, either in reading or writing them - although it is very powerful and uncanny and interesting - is only part of the way that writing always exceeds the limits of the writing self. What makes me calm and happy about writing - when it works - is that sense of writing things that are true; that sense of having got past a particular configuration of cultural forces which tries to repress half the potential meanings in texts, and accounted for something which goes beyond or outside the everyday, commonsensical appearance of things, while not contradicting or dismissing the everyday either. And that's something to do with the way language works, I think: something to do with the materiality of writing, as a way of working with language as material: the way that language, and the social, cultural and historical forces that shape it, put up a specific resistance to certain ways of using language, and writing comes out of negotiating that resistance. Just like sculpting, which relies on the material putting up a specific kind of resistance to the precise degree of muscular force applied to the specific tool that the sculptor's using, and so you chip off exactly this little bit of this particular stone until you have the shape you wanted, insofar as the stone will hold that shape. It's a collaboration between the sculptor and the material. And writing is like that too.

Finally, my title and abstract for the paper I'm giving on the 18th are now up.

*I'm not hip enough to even know what those are called. I'm not even hip enough to know what to Google to find out. Isn't there one in Eight [Eighth?] Mile?

**in pencil, Gemma! In pencil!

***And audible: every night at dusk, the cicadas start shrieking, and at first I kept having to go outside to see if someone's alarm was going off. It's a horrific noise: loud and electronic and grating, a cross between an alarm and that screeching noise that water pipes sometimes make. (I googled cicadas and some of them can make a noise up to 120 dB which, I'm told, is close to the pain threshold of the human ear.)

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