Anti-Writing

There’s anti-poetry: it’s a label or name applying to a specific kind of poetry (called anti-poetry). I’d thought there may a similarly recognised species of writing called anti-writing, but can’t find it if it exists famously (fame in literary matters, of course, may only need a thousand or so people involved). Not surprisingly, Derrida comes close to something that is recognised by more than many thousands of people, if only by hearsay, but I’m looking for a literary approach to producing work more than a philosophy (although I can’t entirely ignore the latter).

Anti-writing could be a starkly defined term. Perhaps the preliterate, communal ‘oral’ culture before the printing press and the advent of increased interiority, self-centred individualism and the third dimension if Marshall McLuhan was right. Or, close to this, a Tolstoyan idyll of woodcraft folk living in a sort of Leavisite organic community where authentic humanity returns to a place before the fall. Mention of the fall and authenticity raises possibilities that essence and existence, or at least questions about them, precede and supercede writing. Alas, Sartre, Camus, Tolstoy and Leavis had a certain reliance upon the written word which renders any examination of their work in search of anti-writing to be immediately unsuccessful.

Actually, the phrase  “anti-writing” does occur frequently in pedagogic literature. It refers to a refusal to read and write, mainly by young people, as a leading cause of illiteracy (rather than inadequate teaching methods, lack of educational provision or sending children down mines). It would be possible with such a clear use of the phrase to move it easily to a prorevolutionary and triumphant rebellion against the written word. That is something which may be no bad thing, but although I sometimes think it would be a very good thing, I don’t want to spend time on it here. I am looking for something else.

There are, allegedly “writerly” books read by the few, and “readerly” books read by the many. The “writerly” are often in a category called “literary”, and the “readerly” in one called “popular”, although the boundaries are diffuse. It is also quite possible to read some writerly book in a readerly way, and some embarrassments have occurred by certain refined readers confusing readerly books with writerly ones. There is, however, certainly a sort of movement against “writerly” books (largely led, it must be said, by people who do not read very much anyway) on the basis that not only are they boring and almost totally incomprehensible, they are also elitist and too clever by half. This movement sees writing as the gift of everybody, for everybody is a writer so “anti-writing” here would mean an attack upon the belief that writing per se is something which is a craft and something that can be done more or less badly or well.

There is a school of thought, vaguely located in literary theory where it meets the more arid hinterland of narrative psychology, which sees writing as the circulation, reinforcement and reproduction of things in quotation marks. Obviously the quotation marks are not necessarily visible, and are more usually not which is also when they are at heir most insidious. A thick miasma formed of millions of interpenetrating skeins of phrases and off-the-shelf lexicons of emotional structures hangs like a perpetual fog in which people grope not for vision but for meaning. Writing is the metaphor for all forms of ideological expression; language, in a very broad metaphorical usage, is at once a dynamic of competing phrases and ideas but yet held in miraculous stasis by forces which I suppose are ultimately located in the economic base. I have perhaps over-ornated what is in fact rather dull, but such ideas do still excite the suspicions against the intellectual, and worse, the bourgeois intellectual, and who else but an intellectual would write? On the other hand, I do believe that universal literacy was faced with horror by the bourgeois establishment for untold chaos and anarchy would surely follow if the proletariat ever became educated to read and, god forbid, to write.

But none of this is what I mean by “anti-writing”. It’s simply this. It’s there anyway in irony, satire, humour, the very spirit of writing. It is like apophatic theology or cynical philosophy. It destroys, rips to bits, puts into an acid bath all of its own medium as it is producing itself. Then, and this is the magic part, after destroying everything not worth having it’s discovered in a piece of anti-writing the restoration of the vital value of writing. That’s why it’s true when they say all writing is about writing, all poetry is about poetry, and so on. It’s true, but there’s more, much more, and a lot still needs tearing to shreds before we’ll get near it.

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