Tag: literature | __underscore

Posts on: literature

Just to while away the time, I’ve been trying to list what my – and I suspect many others’ – writing tics are, especially when writing theory/criticism. (The tics I’ve identified below I know for a fact I have obtained through reading Anglosphere theory/criticism/philosophy, so it can’t just be me afflicted by them.) I’ll explain more below, but this isn’t to mock or shame people: there would be no language without repeated turns of phrase (tics), and we all have them. I’m just interested to see what happens when we elevate them from unconscious reflexes to the level of conscious reflection.

Here’s some I’ve identified, in both myself and others, off the top of my head:

  • …, of course, …: This is my worst offender, I think, largely because I don’t even use it as it’s meant to be used. I use it usually to add rhythm or a breather to sentences, rather than to express something that’s actually obvious and would therefore allow an “of course”. The result is that it just comes off as pretentious and performative.

  • Far from…: E.g. “Far from escaping desire for the cherished realm of dispassionate objectivity, anxious attempts to rein back “subjectivist” desire only further demonstrate it through their jittery acts of denial.” (from an old blog post of mine – there are plenty of examples…).

  • Against the…: Interchangeable with the above.

  • The story goes like this: Largely big in theory-fiction/accelerationist writing, inspired by Nick Land’s “Meltdown”. E.g. I noticed it on the Psuedoanalysis blog (again, this isn’t to mock – the blog’s one of my favourites, and I’ve learnt a lot about psychoanalysis through it)

  • Italicising almost every other word: I shamelessly do – and stand by – this, but I do notice it’s something that only theory/philosophy seems to do. How often do you see it in fiction or more factual non-fiction?

  • Here, I want to…: I’m trying to present tics neutrally here, but this one does get on my nerves. It’s something I see more in strictly academic writing like journal articles or PhD theses, and it reeks of academic self-flagellation. If you’ve written something, you don’t want to do something, you have done something! Just say “I’m going to..”

  • …, and is this not the …?: Zizek does this a lot.

  • … - and this is precisely the point - …: Ditto, but I like it.

It’s interesting: where do you stop when listing writing tics? Because I could easily extend the above list: I could have included particular sentence structures (something which the “Far from…” tic hints towards), particular ways of opening or introducing pieces, particular neologisms or words, particular topics, particular citations, particular uses of punctuation, particular likes and dislikes, etc, etc…

The answer is that, well, you can’t: writing is, by nature, a kind of tic. Or, more generally: language is a kind of tic. Instead of being the perfect representation of an individual self-consciousness, language is by definition adopted through a cumulative imitation of external speakers, which we then interiorise and eventually use automatically. Rather than a (self-)conscious, linguistically coherent thought occurring before every act of speaking/writing, language is simultaneously more than and less than the subject. More than because language always comes from, and is directed towards, the external Other; less than because its use is determined primarily by pragmatics and unconscious reflexes, rather than being grounded in a self-conscious intention prior to language. In other words, language lacks an interior; it exists purely on the outside, for the outside; and it is for this reason that William Burroughs famously described language as a virus.

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Halfway through Samuel Beckett’s excellent Malone Dies, the titular character details a highly evocative visual metaphor that quickly gets right to the heart of the Beckettian project:

… I feel it my duty to say that it is never light in this place, never really light. The light is there, outside, the air sparkles, the granite wall across the way glitters with all its mica, the light is against my window, but it does not come through. So that here all bathes, I will not say in shadow, nor even in half-shadow, but in a kind of leaden light that makes no shadow, so that it is hard to say from what direction it comes, for it seems to come from all directions at once, and with equal force. (p.58)

You can picture it in your mind’s eye: a dull light that illuminates basically nothing apart from indiscriminate amorphous pools of dark colour that we can barely perceive, that for all intents and purposes is not “light” at all. And yet, this is not simply darkness either… there is something that we sense, but without any of the clarity that light is supposed to bring…

It is not just Malone’s room that is bathed in this eerie “leaden light”, which he evokes multiple times throughout the book: it is seemingly the entirety of Beckett’s oeuvre. Beckett’s characters are often decrepit, impotent, forgetful and elderly figures that stalk not just at the fringes of society (for example in mental institutions) but also at the fringes of the human itself.  Constantly reflecting on and editing the texts which they are purportedly the author, flitting from one topic to the next, his characters seem to lack any of the regularity or constancy that define human interiority. And yet, they stubbornly remain human: with a dark and bleak sense of humour, they continue to think, walk about, and even have sex. Much like the leaden light, we can grasp at “something” with Beckett’s characters, but paradoxically because of this, they remain unclear, dark, “nothing”.

It is precisely this commitment to the eerie, contradictory fringes that makes Beckett’s books often challenging and difficult to read: absent a plot or characters in any substantial or coherent sense, the major footholds a reader typically depends on when reading are gone. For most people, this amounts to a cardinal sin, and an immediate turn-off: why read a book where nothing happens? Where we know essentially nothing about the characters involved? Why are there pages, indeed a whole physical book, when really there should be none? Indeed, for most people these are entirely legitimate questions, and the “common sense”, instinctual reaction to Beckett’s works would be to stop reading after 20 pages and tell everyone you know how boring the book was. But such criticisms, rather than seriously invalidating Beckett’s works, actually demonstrate the radicality of the philosophical claims they make on us. For in order to seriously engage with and enjoy them, Beckett’s works demand nothing less than this: that we adopt a whole new ontology, an ontology right at the limits of ontology itself.

The central philosophical question prompted by Beckett is this: how do we think nothingness without turning it into a “something”? How do we think a being that, paradoxically, is nothing? What kind of “being” is the leaden light?

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