Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Problems of the Real

George Ttoouli rambles out loud to break the deadlock howling through these electronic halls.

Recent conversations with students about the purpose of stories have been interesting. I co-teach a class on narrative and anti-narrative with the inestimable auto-didact Peter Blegvad. Over the past few years I've been trying (and failing, according to some of the students) to construct a cogent understanding of anti-narrative.

Not, as the name implies, the opposite of narrative, but an extension of. The territory brought me into investigating conventions and traditions in opposition to experimentation and concoction. The idea of where experimentation lies, however, is problematic.

Perec's La Disparation, for example: a radical process of language generation, yet with arguably conventional results. Or by contrast, the idea of using bullet point lists, diagrams, or similar, to interrupt traditional flows of pure narrative. The technique appears in Bridget Jones' Diary, in Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time.

(Neither technique, I should add, are 'original' - whatever that means. Perec was building on Ernest Vincent Wright's Gadsby, while list forms and diagrams within text are more prevalent. At some point, arguably, both techniques were original in the context of the novel, but the waters of experimentation vs. tradition are muddied by the adoption of the best techniques by later practitioners, effectively conventionalising them. That leads to the thought that 'experimental' is a temporal, or relative tag. Foucault's Pendulum was the first novel I recall using diagrams in a way that delighted me, spoke to the feeling of surprise I crave as a reader. Yet no doubt I'd seen it before in Tolkien or elsewhere. Similarly, Jonathan Safran Foer's latest, Tree of Codes, is experimental in its production values, but sits on the shoulders of Ronald Johnson's Radi Os, or any other number of more recent poetic excavations.)

The point where I make the students panic is when I ask them what they think stories are for. Ideas of entertainment, communicating the self, understanding problems of the self, or in the world, expressing ideas, politics and so on. My favourite responses, the one that would have been truest to my feeling around that age, is that stories are pointless. All art, to some extent, felt a pointless act at the time of becoming politically aware, feeling the world had far more important things and that I needed to make a difference, or accept that I could never make a difference.

(Perhaps that side of the journey is entirely my own.)

In any case, back in the day when I used to agree with the pointlessness of the mimetic arts, I reasoned to myself, I argued to myself, that they could only represent things, ideas; they didn't enact. Naively, or necessarily, I wanted my words to set things on fire - people, minds, hearts, sure, but I couldn't escape the feeling that I wanted to actually set fire to things also: dismantle systems, collapse governments, oppressors, free people, destroy prisons literal and metaphorical. (This suddenly brings to mind a brief nickname I had as a teenager: 'The Arsonist'. Not for any concrete reasons, but let's just say I was comfortable with fire.)

Now for one of my trademark tangents. If you're feeling ropey, go grab a cup of tea, play some solitaire, come back to this later and maybe pretend this is a new article, starting from these handily positioned asterisks:


Something I've encountered recently, Lierre Keith's book, The Vegetarian Myth. I began reading an interview with her for In the Wake, on her website.

It's a fascinating interview and worth reading in full - especially to see if I've taken these out of context - but here are some statements to take in:

"I think it's crucial to understand what differentiates liberalism from radicalism ... One cardinal difference is idealism vs materialism. Liberalism is idealist ... liberalism is individualist.


radicalism is materialist ... The basic social unit is a class or group


Liberals essentially think that oppression is a mistake, a misunderstanding, and changing people's minds is the way to change the world. That's where you get this tremendous emphasis on education as a political strategy


even if we're personally not on the front lines, there are many other ways to use our talents and skills to support the people who are willing and able to do what's necessary. Somebody needs to do the political outreach and proselytizing. Somebody always needs to do the dishes.


what I'm urging here is for all of us who share a basic analysis of the problem to accept the necessity of militant action. We don't all have to do it. But it's a crucial component of whatever chance we have to stop the horror and destruction."

(The point I've taken the furthest out of context is the 'dishes' bit, which has a fairly stated moderation in the following sentences.)

I found myself trying to come to terms with my position as a writer and educator. What was I achieving? In light of these ideas, I felt, initially, that Keith felt I was doing nothing more than 'washing dishes'; the students that bought into my ideas were essentially several steps along the way to my values already (and I share many of Keith's ideas, if not her conclusions). They simply wanted more information. And for every one of these students, there's at least one that doesn't feel passionate about the ideas, and one that disagrees.

Going further, for the converted education is simply a means to find out where one is able to act. A university is a source for this, but I pick my ideas up from self-led reading and word of mouth, like everyone else. It's a contrived network for faster learning, sure, but it's not the only pathway.

But I enjoy it, and I do alright with it, and the environment is good for me. The students haven't lynched me yet. Should I start washing actual dishes for an anarchist group? Or can I get away with polishing their shoes and ironing the creases in their trousers?

Another stage of digression: maybe it's time to pee that cup of tea and come back. This time tildas to separate:


Last term I taught a session on the UK student protests. I still have a tremendous amount of guilt for an honest statement I made in response to a video of mounted police charging teenagers in central London, which, loosely speaking, made me hate the police and want to respond with violence. I immediately told the students that I found that reaction in myself hateful, wrong, completely the wrong response.

I am not violent, I don't support violence. Yet I support the desire to act, where debate and discussion leads nowhere. A society that leads people to violent protest is failing to communicate properly with the disaffected or struggling. Ultimately, it's desperation and ignorance that leads to violence, or to paraphrase Hari Seldon, from Asimov's Foundation series, it's the first response of the ignorant, the last resort of the incompetent. Imagination, expression, creativity, these lead to solutions that are non-violent. So I believe.

With the help of a late night discussion with a friend, that's the conclusion I came to: I'm an educator, no, an educationalist. That's what I do, I express, communicate, try to change people, because that's what I'm (or like to think I am) good at. Imagination training, equipping people with the means to enact change through positive, creative action.

So, the melting pot of these ideas takes me back to experimentation and the idea of the purpose of writing. Ultimately, yes, you could say that all writing is mimetic, representational. So is all language. Why communicate, why express? Why not lock your mouth shut, or, to be fair to the wide array of means of communication, do nothing at all - no miming, no movement, no facial expressions, no communication in any mode at all? They all represent something, are interpreted to do so by others. Even inaction. We're writing the story of our feelings our needs our dreams, on the world all the time, through living. Even in death we communicate ideas.

The purpose of story-telling is up to the individual, but I came around (through a long, tangential path, if you've stuck with the flow of this article) to the notion that, even if story is meaningless, purposeless, the act is enjoyable to me, something that rewards me through its practice. From that building block, what are the possibilities?

And to experiment in language, to try to break boundaries, surprise expectations, is to take action against established orders. The counter - to simply reinforce tradition, to fit into established modes of marketability, genre, technique, publication format, rules of language, grammar, presentation, writing environments, tools, and so on - all these things are merely toeing the line. Why reinforce the status quo, if the status quo is so execrable?

Or worse. Hopefully, after all the digression, this conclusion will sound like I've earned it:

Situated within the context of Keith's ideas of domination, the exercise of power against the powerless, to reinforce the status quo when one is the weaker of the parties involved (publishers, retailers, market forces, biased reviewing, the attack on intelligence, creativity and the humanities, as well as freedom of expression by the British Government) is not simply to ignore the struggle, but to support it.

To write to convention is to kneel before the captors, the dominant voices that regulate social progress for their own ends. Keith's arguments see language as a failure over action, yet organisations like Avaaz, or 38degrees, are a challenge to this, a challenge to narrative patterning. This is why I have no truck with newspapers these days. They are entirely interested in pre-existing narrative patterns. It's also why I find Christopher Booker's The Seven Basic Plots an extremely useful tool: he identifies the boxes we exist within, which is a helpful tool for breaking out of those boxes.

1 comment:

Emily Hasler said...

Ah, this takes me back. It is (counts on fingers)half a decade since I took 'Narratives and Anti-narratives'. I'm as sure as I can be it helped me to form some important ideas and writing practices. But it definitely was extremely enjoyable.