Sunday, December 20, 2015

Of Muses and Darkness: The Poetics of Writing

Image: Frakieleon, 'True Colours', 2009, Flickr/Creative Commons

It has been almost three decades since the publication of Clifford and Marcus’ Writing Culture: The Poetics & Politics of Ethnography. Yet, the volume’s statement on interdisciplinarity as not just the act of ‘picking a theme or a subject’ but the decision of ‘creating a new object that belongs to no one’ (p. 1) still retains its relevance across the social sciences. Although Clifford is talking about ethnography and the ethics of partial truth excavation in scholarship, his observations certainly apply to writing as a form of agency upon the social in broader terms to date. His decision to expand on writing as a metaphor of ‘pilgrimage’ in Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late 20th Century (1997) shifted debates on movement in phenomenological and interactive terms. In Returns: Becoming Indigenous in the Twenty First Century (2013) he also suggested that collective and individual subjectivities are processual and emergent; that we all are overdetermined in some respects by the presence of an interconnected network of cultures – so much so, that our own (auto)biographic rootings remain ever-shifting and malleable.

The lengthy reference to the politics and poetics of writing makes sense in the contemporary context of Western academia as this undergoes ideological changes due to the invasion of unregulated market ideologies in its informal ways of ‘doing things’. Looking past this polemics – possibly, also past any ‘publish or perish’ ultimatums (Colquhoun, 5 September 2011) – one discovers a world of barely visible networks of people striving to articulate what matters to them nd not for the sake of a Research Excellence Framework. With all the hassles of the academic job, putting an idea into words, shaping up an argument (or more than one) persist as values referring back to other values – amongst them the assaulted freedom of expression.

Writing is a dangerous act: not only does it release feelings and notions the author never manages to fully tame into texts – for, meaning always exceeds its original articulation – it puts us into indirect contact with other voices. My mental closets are full of significant others who fade or return in my desktop every time I type up a new idea. If, as de Certeau (1986) noted, spatial trajectories find a way to project their creators’ psychic world, then it is true that writing will always invoke and release some form of darkness. And by ‘darkness’ I refer to the innermost recesses of our intellect and heart, not to a chiaroscuro artistic exercise. As Neil Gaiman recently said, our stories should openly ‘[ask] whether any fictions should in fact be “safe places”, or whether their purpose should instead be to “hurt in ways that make [one] think and grow and change”’ (Kennedy, 25 October 2015).

A retired now colleague used to classify us into 'talkers, doers and writers'...

Scholarly writing in particular encompasses both the politics of friendship and the poetics of love. Friendship follows a code of paradigm affiliation, which binds scholars into the same dark space, coerces them to fumble their way around for the right words and to provide mutual support via all sorts of direct and indirect exchange. Here ‘exchange’ becomes interchangeable with ‘reciprocity’, as writers are supposed to be bound by a norm of mutual acknowledgment of sharing in intellectual projects. Where this is absent, the relationship dies before it grows into a stable and more permanent friendship. I am constantly engaging in such precarious exchanges, often guessing the identities of those who proclaim solidarity, retreating in disappointment for broken links with others, or building new unexpected connections. ‘Muses’ assume different form, context and content in my writing ventures, often via faint and fleeting interactions, indirect communications or textual sites I discover during searches. In such complex and interconnected virtual and terrestrial encounters, belonging remains emergent much like Clifford’s politics of belonging.

My sanity is dependent on my interlocutors's intellectual maturity
Image: Denise Krebbs, 'A Writing Six-Word Story', 2013, Flickr/Creative Commons

Nevertheless, there is also another side to this shared darkness that leads one down a more dangerous path and straight into the poetics of love. To explain, I refer again to Clifford’s original point about interdisciplinary writing (the decision of ‘creating a new object that belongs to no one’), which links to a direct quote from Roland Barthes’ work. Clifford is less interested in Barthes' interdisciplinarity however than in making a point about the interpretative nature of fieldwork in Malinowski’s ethnographic journeys. It is this bringing together of Barthes with Malinowski in Writing Culture’s introductory chapter that allowed Clifford to make an enduring ethical statement on authorial violence, creative representation and partial truth-making. Would the two scholars ever had looked eye to eye, if they had been brought together? Such synthetic referencing always involves the effacement of one’s original inspiration, even though the source’s acknowledgment is an act of love. Such violence might also creep up aposteriori, when manuscripts have already been published –especially when stylistic similarities or intellectual compatibilities eventually prompt new source-searching and writing. These occurrences are not uncommon in scholarly networks and coerce authors to readjust their cognitive panoramas, resort to accepting new significant others into their own dark field, or even explore new collective or individual opportunities of articulation. Ironically then, though the poetics of authorial love are dedicated to humanising ideas, they may have to resort to some dehumanising techniques, to objectify those we cite or acknowledge in our writings.   

Clifford, J. & Marcus, G. (eds.) (1986) Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography, Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press.
Clifford, J. (1997) Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late 20th Century, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Clifford, J. (2013) Returns: Becoming Indigenous in the Twenty First Century, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Colquhoun, D. (5 September 2011) ‘Pressure on scientists to publish has led to a situation where any paper, however bad, can now be printed in a journal that claims to be peer-reviewed’, The Guardian.
de Certeau, M. (1986) Heterologies, Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Feminist Media Studio (2013) James Clifford discusses his new book 'Returns: Becoming Indigenous in the Twenty-First Century' with Trish Audette, doctoral student in Communication Studies, at the Feminist Media Studio, Concordia University, October 2013.
Kennedy, L. (25 October 2015) ‘Trigger Warning by Neil Gaiman review – nasty surprises and bold recastings’, The Observer.

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