On Not Writing

It hardly seems necessary for me to justify not writing, given the low readership of this blog. But I still wanted to say something about not writing, because I’ve been thinking about it, even if no one else has. Let’s begin with a collection of quotes by important writers telling aspiring writers to write:

“If you want to be a writer, you have to write every day. The consistency, the monotony, the certainty, all vagaries and passions are covered by this daily reoccurrence. You don’t go to a well once but daily. You don’t skip a child’s breakfast or forget to wake up in the morning. Sleep comes to you each day, and so does the muse.” – Walter Mosley

“How do you write? You write, man, you write, that’s how, and you do it the way the old English walnut tree puts forth leaf and fruit every year by the thousands” – William Saroyan

“Quantity produces quality. If you only write a few things, you’re doomed.” – Ray Bradbury

“The way you define yourself as a writer is that you write every time you have a free minute. If you didn’t behave that way you would never do anything.” – John Irving

“Write.” – Neil Gaiman

“Don’t just plan to write – write. It is only by writing, not dreaming about it, that we develop our own style.” – PD James

“Write. No amount of self-inflicted misery, altered states, black pullovers or being publicly obnoxious will ever add up to your being a writer. Writers write. On you go.” – AL Kennedy

To stir the pot a bit, let’s add a voice of dissent: “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money” – Samuel Johnson

I could have found an equal (perhaps not equal, but close) number of quotes telling writers not to write unless they have something to say. But I went with the superegos instead. They’re better at representing conventional wisdom and better at giving professional advice (even if “professional” advice isn’t exactly what you’re looking for). There’s another school of “write-all-the-time” thinkers, those who talk about writing as life, as necessary, as a compulsion, and so on: quasi-theological pronouncements on the nature of the word, the essentiality of language (so anthropocentric!), writing as freedom (is it really?). Here’s one version (I’m using google, so forgive the narrowness of my sources – mostly Americans, mostly people that everyone reads):

“If you are destined to become a writer, you can’t help it. If you can help it, you aren’t destined to become a writer. The frustrations and disappointments, not even to mention the unspeakable loneliness, are too unbearable for anyone who doesn’t have a deep sense of being unable to avoid writing.”- Donald Harington

Needless to say, I can help it. I can not write for long periods of time (I scrawl a bit, but it’s not for sharing, at least not here). I can busy myself with alcohol and movie-watching/-making and time-wasting and flirting. It’s not that hard, I promise (not talking would be another story; let the ascetics go to hell, since they’re already there, anyway).

So we have two positions here (and that third one – represented by Dr. Johnson – that I threw in on the sly): one says that a writer is someone who writes all the time; the other says that a writer is someone who writes all the time. Let’s do away with the holy business of writing, though. The first question that should be asked in an inquiry into the nature of a vocation, in any case, is what the practitioners of that vocation do. And let’s not begin with the tautology, either (they write). Because that’s not what they do, if we’re looking at their writing as social practice, if we’re looking at it as a form of social labor.

So let’s figure out what they do. Let’s read.

Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, “Freedom,” like his previous one, “The Corrections,” is a masterpiece of American fiction. The two books have much in common. Once again Franzen has fashioned a capacious but intricately ordered narrative that in its majestic sweep seems to gather up every fresh datum of our shared millennial life. Franzen knows that college freshmen are today called “first years,” like tender shoots in an overplanted garden; that a high-minded mom, however ruthless in her judgments of her neighbors’ ethical lapses, will condemn them with no epithet harsher than “weird”; that reckless drivers who barrel across lanes are “almost always youngish men for whom the use of blinkers was apparently an affront to their masculinity.”

What’s going on here? Well, Sam Tanenhaus,  a writer, is describing a long piece of writing by Jonathan Franzen, also a writer, and praising that piece of writing for its ability to observe, describe, elaborate. (He’s making an offering at the temple.) After a bit of reflection, a couple of themes are recognizable in this little chunk of writing:

  • Writing-as-profession: Tanenhaus is the senior editor at the New York Times Book Review. On top of editing, he makes his living reviewing pieces of literature. Franzen makes his living writing those pieces of literature (and giving interviews and writing articles and giving lectures and so forth). We have, then, two professionals engaged in a game of sorts. Tanenhaus praises Franzen. Tanenhaus probably really likes Franzen. Franzen is famous. Tanenhaus secures proxy-recognition. Franzen’s fame increases. Circulation occurs.
  • Writing-as-revelation: We are being told that Franzen sees things that we do not see. For example, college freshmen are called “first-years” and young men express aggression through complex means, such as cutting people off on the highway. In this category, we should also mention the ideas of writer-as-doctor, writer-as-priest, writer-as-god.
  • Writer-as-celebrity: The entire piece revolves around the idea that we can get something from Franzen – not just knowledge, but a kind of aura or élan – and that we’ll thereby become happier or better people (cf. writer-as-doctor/priest).
  • Social hierarchy: Franzen>Tanenhaus>You. This is more complex than it might seem. Presumptions that we live in a meritocracy are patently false. This is nowhere more apparent than in the complex social rituals that exist in hierarchical systems (contrary to seeing blatant examples of these hierarchies as more exploitative than “normal” relations, I see them as doing us the favor of revealing what we already implicitly know).

So what we see, then, is not one kind of role for a writer (priest/analyst), but a number of roles, which include “professional,” priest, doctor, celebrity, and better person. (NB: I’m deliberately ignoring Foucault’s important essay, “What is an Author?” I think some of the claims are overblown – “The coming into being of the notion of ‘author’ constitutes the privileged moment of individualization in the history of ideas” – but I neither want to interrogate nor defend them. I recommend the essay to anyone who is interested). But let’s examine another role, one that will no doubt be familiar to those versed in the early works of Jacques Derrida. Writers make inscriptions in a legible medium capable of storing content (Of Grammatology makes much of the proliferation of words ending in -graphy – calligraphy, choreography, geography). That is to say, the act of writing is an act of making a mark, like taking a shit in the woods. And the act of making a mark is an act of writing, like taking a shit in the woods with intention.

This is to say that something like communication is entailed in writing. But also that other things that have nothing to do with communication, like money and power, are entailed in writing (“No shit, Sherlock,” as I used to say when I was twelve). It’s also to say that the act of writing is not the necessary act of self-divulgation or freeflowing unloading that representatives of the “write-to-live” school make it out to be. One writes not because one must unload the workings of the mind (what chutzpa!). Writing is an act of inscription and, as such, it is an act among other acts.

All this is to say nothing new. The inscription debates of the 1970s (known as structuralism, post-structuralism, grammatics, etc.) more or less exhausted the subject of  what writing is. Romanticism persists, but it rings hollow. One particular kind of romanticism about writing, though – the moral injunction – tends to have more cache than others.

“Maybe the greatest sin is neither of these two ancient ones [the lust for power and hubris]; the greatest sin may be the new twentieth-century sin of indifference” – Peter Drucker

“It is the duty of every citizen according to his best capacities to give validity to his convictions in political affairs.” – Einstein

“The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing… ” – Einstein

“Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.” – Paolo Freire

“We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy, for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers. A time comes when silence is betrayal. ” – Dr. King

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter. ” – Dr. King

“First they came for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up, because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time there was no one left to speak up for me. ” – Pastor Martin Neimoller

“The simple step of a courageous individual is not to take part in the lie. One word of truth outweighs the world. ” – Solzhenitsyn

“I swore never to be silent whenever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” -Elie Wiesel

“Civil disobedience is not our problem. Our problem is civil obedience. Our problem is that numbers of people all over the world have obeyed the dictates of the leaders of their government and have gone to war, and millions have been killed because of this obedience… Our problem is that people are obedient all over the world in the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity, and war, and cruelty. Our problem is that people are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves, and all the while the grand thieves are running the country. That’s our problem.” – Howard Zinn

These are compelling quotes; I won’t pretend they aren’t. I won’t pretend they’re coming out of naiveté, either, because they’re not. Nor will I take the typical critical position of holding myself at some distance and saying, “I understand what these people don’t, because I critique ideology.” It wouldn’t be true, for starters. But to know perfectly well that injustice is taking place and to remain silent – not only to remain silent but to believe, not naively but with conviction, that one has nothing to say – this is the position I see myself coming from.

This is a strange position to take. False modesty, possibly (or genuine self-doubt). But it’s also a refusal. Adorno continues to invoke anger for his statement that writing lyric poetry (I believe he had in mind poetry that “praises/uplifts” the soul) after Auschwitz was barbaric. He later gave a quasi-retraction of this statement, in which he said that it’s wrong to censure a victim of torture for crying out, a gesture that I think fits in very well with the nature of the statement itself. On the one hand, the statement is absolutely right: it is barbaric (or naive) to continue to hope in the face of oblivion. On the other hand, it is absolutely wrong: humans continue to exist, and until that is no longer the case, then they must be able to express their solitude. Writing both is and isn’t barbaric.

But, in the name of honesty, I should say what it is that I haven’t been writing about: Arab Spring, the Occupy movement, police repression, the continuing economic crisis, love and hate, global warming. All issues that I feel myself deeply invested in and deeply committed to, yet also unable to talk about with a sense that I am doing them any justice. And there’s the rub. Once, when I saw myself as a critic, I could write – critique is easy. But when I began to regard myself as deeply and acutely enmeshed in everything that I previously wrote about, the idea of continuing to write began to feel, to use a provocative word, barbaric.

But let’s not romanticize it too much. There was also apathy on my part, in spades. An apathy that hit hard during the budget debates of Summer, 2011. It was then that I saw in very stark terms that political theater could take place unhampered by any number of dissenting voices, any number of banging drums or loud exclamations of injustice. That these men and women – on the right and the “left” – were lying during these debates was patently obvious. And there were many of those who called them on it, castigated them, cried out against the theft that was being perpetrated. Yet the outcome was predictable from the beginning, and everything went according to a Neoliberal script. The Republicans demanded austerity (from those who could least afford it), the President outdid them in their fiscal conservativism, the Republicans demanded more, Boehner promised to renew this theater at the next round of budget discussions. And then: apathy. It seemed like the only possible reaction at the time. How could I take justice seriously in the face of such overwhelming cynicism? What could I possibly add to the discussion? Better to get drunk, I thought.

This is not a recovery-of-my-voice story, and it doesn’t end with what a friend of mine has called the “shrug toward Utopia.” This is simply an essay on not-writing. An attempt at saying something different from what I have said. We write because we write, and I haven’t written because I find my words, perhaps not barbaric, but absurd.


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Notes On Ecology and Philosophy

1) No easy coherence between already-existing philosophies and the ecological question. Marxism and ecology. Ontology and ecology. Psychoanalysis and ecology. Vitalism and ecology. Epistemology and ecology. Theology and ecology. The general trend is to squeeze the latter into the former, show how it’s always been so, etc.

2) Liberationist philosophy (whether Christian theology, Marxism, or neoliberalism) has tended to emphasize what have been called “acts of commission,” as opposed to “acts of omission”: that is, oppression, warfare, sin. The spectre of ecological crisis is one in which, regardless of human goodness or evil, regardless of whether greed is good or bad, things have been pushed too far, and they will snap.

3) Relativism is not an ontology (e.g., “It’s turtles all the way down”). Quantum physics is not social theory.

4) There is stupidity. There are wrong answers. Are there right answers? There are less-wrong answers.

5) Knowledge production is necessary for finding solutions. Knowledge production has (very large) material needs. These two facts will always be in conflict.

6) Scarcity needs to be thought, but we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. This is dangerous ground, though, and rationalization/ideology abounds.

7) There is something important expressed in Kant’s Third Formulation of the Categorical Imperative: “Every rational being must so act as if he were through his maxim always a legislating member in the universal kingdom of ends.” Don’t reify it, though.

8 No matter how bad a problem gets, one can always make things worse. This expression, however, can be formalized, and all iterations are true (No matter how much P, there can always be Q -> not-P, not-Q; P, not-Q; not-P, Q).

9) A theory of hegemony takes precedence over a theory of the State.

10) There are three sins: fraud, cynicism and hypocrisy. Fraud is by far the worst.

11) The weight of sheer numbers.

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Mad Men, S4 Ep 12-13 Review

If an office in a TV show has mass layoffs, the actors and many of the support staff for those actors have also just lost their jobs.


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Althusser = (Gramsci + Foucault) – (Historical Research + Nuance)

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The cultural turn

Haven’t we had “cultural turns” before? The Renaissance, Romanticism, High Modernism, The Progressive Era, “The 60’s”. Any period in which culture comes to play a direct role in politics and vice versa amounts to a cultural turn. Intellectuals begin imagining a new world replete with new social forms and new ways of thinking. Gaps are bridged between disciplines; confusion about what constitutes what. At the end, there are lamentations about the breaking down of the social order. Reformation, Disraelism/Victorianism, Fascism, McCarthyism, the Reagan Revolution…

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Food for thought

I may think about this and respond/comment at some point, but for now I simply want to put it out there:

Man as individual and man as mass. The Latin proverb ‘Senatores boni viri, senatus mala bestia’ has become a platitude.  What is the meaning of this proverb, and what meaning has it acquired?  That a crowd of people governed by immediate interests or gripped by a passion stirred by the impressions of the moment, acritically transmitted from one person to the next, unites around the worst collective decision, reflecting the lowest animal instincts.  The observation is valid and realistic insofar as it refers to the kind of crowd that forms by chance, such as when a crowd gathers under a roof during a downpour; these are crowds composed of people who are not bound together by a burden of responsibility toward other people or groups of people or toward a concrete economic reality whose collapse would result in disaster for individuals.  One could say, then, that in such crowds individualism is not transcended and, worse, it is exacerbated by the certainty of impunity and the absence of responsibility.

“Nevertheless, it is also commonly observed that an ‘orderly’ assembly of quarrelsome and unruly individuals unites around collective decisions that are superior to those of the average individual: quantity becomes quality.  If it were not so, it would be impossible to have an army, and the same can be said, for example, fo the incredibly sacrifices that well-disciplined groups of people are able to make on certain occasions when their sense of social responsibility is strongly aroused by the immediate sense of common danger and the future seems more important than the present.  One may look, by way of illustration, at an open-air rally which is different from a meeting behind closed doors, or a trade union meeting and so on.  A meeting of the officers of the general staff would be quite different from an assembly of the soldiers of a platoon, etc.

“The tendency toward conformity in the contemporary world is more widespread and deeper than in the past; the standardizaiton of ways of thinking and of behavior extends across nations and even continents.  The economicbase of collective man: big factories, Taylorization, rationalization, etc.  But did collective man exist in the past?  He existed, as Mihcels would say, under the form of charismatic leadership.  In other words, a collective will was attained under the impetus and direct influence of a ‘here,’ of a paradigmatic individual, but this collective will was produced by extraneous factors and once formed would disintegrate, repeatedly.  Today, by contrast, collective man is formed essentially from the bottom up, on the basis of the position that the collectivity occupies in the world of production [this was written in the 1930s; we now have to come to terms with offices, cubicles, apartments, television, the Internet, automobiles…  the machinery of de-socialization or disaggregated socialization].  The paradigmatic individual still has a role in the formation of collective man, but it is a greatly diminished role, so much so that he could disappear without the collective cement disintegrating or the structure collapsing.

“It is said that ‘Western scientists maintain that the psyche of the masses is nothing other than the resurgence of the old instincts of the primordial horde and is therefore a regression to stages of culture that have long been surpassed.’  this must be taken to refer to so-called crowd psychology, that is, the psychology of crowds that are formed by chance; it is a pseudoscientific assertion rooted in positivist sociology.

“Apropos of social ‘conformism,’ it should be noted that the question is not new and that the alarm sounded by certain intellectuals is simply comical.  Conformism has always existed; today, there is a struggle between ‘two conformisms,’ that is, a struggle for hegemony, and a crisis of civil society.  The old intellectual and moral leaders of society feel the ground giving way under tehir feet.  They are aware that their sermons have become, precisely, ‘sermons,’ namely, things that are removed from the real world, pure form devoid of content, hollow shells; hence their despair, their reactionary and conservative tendencies.   Since the particular form of civiliation, culture, morality that they have represented is decomposing, they shriek at the death of all civilizaiton, of all culture, of all morality, and they demand that the state take repressive measures, or, secluded form the real process of history, they constitute themselves into groups of resistance and by so doing prolong the crisis, since the demise of a way of living and thinking cannot take place without a crisis.  On the other hand, the representatives of the new order now in gestation, full of ‘rationalistic’ hatred for the old, are disseminating utopias and crackpot schemes.  What is the reference point of the new world in gestation?  The world of production, labor.  The maximum degree of utilitarianism must inform every analysis of the moral and intellectual institutions to be created and of the principles to be disseminated; collective and individual life must be organized to maximize the yield of the productive apparatus.  The development of economic forces on new foundations and the progressive establishment of the new structure will heal the inevitable contradictions and, having created a new ‘conformism’ from below, will allow new possibilities for self-discipline – that is, new possibilities for freedom, including individual freedom.”

– Gramsci, Prison Notebooks, Notebook 7, §12 (Prison Notebooks Volume III, Edited and translated by Joseph A. Buttigieg, New York: Columbia University Press, 2007)

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A quick note on the inevitability of the same damn arguments

Reading Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, one comes across the same debates going on in Gramsci’s time as are currently going on today. Not only are the debates identical in theme, they are the same down to the positions taken and the points made. The vocabulary is different, but that’s the extent of it. For example, Gramsci rails against literati who view “the people” as a pure abstraction: “And in the meantime they do nothing but devise tricks for winning the electoral majority.” He discusses the complaints about two cultures in Britain: “Guido Ferrando analyzes the changes that are taking place in British culture: ‘In England there is an increasing swing toward a technical and scientific form of culture to the detriment of humanistic culture. In England, until the last century… the best schools set as their highest educational goal the formation of gentlemen.” Certainly, Gramsci inspired some of these debates, such as those over organic intellectuals, but others, like the anxiety of intellectuals who want to connect to the people, was not Gramsci’s coinage and has been a regular facet of the modern world. That’s not to say that there are no differences between now and then. Just that there aren’t a lot of new ideas.

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