Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Writing as flesh

I've long been fascinated by the bodily connection that we often feel that we have with our writing. This is as true of writing done on a computer as of manuscript or print. Aaron just wrote a thoughtful post describing pieces of writing as his children (although, come on Aaron, the whole Abraham/Ishmael thing is kind of creepy). It's a common enough metaphor. And of course, there is the proverbial "bleeding on" a draft, as if to suggest corrections were tantamount to taking a pen and slicing open the text's flesh.

In Of Grammatology, Derrida puts his finger on a value judgment that runs through discourses on writing:
There is therefore a good and a bad writing: the good and natural is the divine inscription in the heart and the soul; the perverse and artful is technique, exiled in the exteriority of the body. [...] The good writing has therefore always been comprehended.
The kind of writing that gets the same ontological status as speech, Derrida suggests, is the kind that is not really writing at all, but rather a metaphorical "inscription" defined by interiority and presence. The writing that is writing per se, the kind defined by its portability, its capacity to circulate alienated from the body, is the kind that is considered fallen, a mere sorry simulacrum of speech.

But the writing that I encounter in my workaday life, both as a critic and as a teacher, doesn't quite fit into this schema. Our writing really is alienable, but the process of alienation is painful. You can "develop a thick skin" when it comes to criticism (of your writing, not of you personally!), but it's still never easy to "take." That's why Aaron's metaphor of children feels so apt (even as it feels excessive): flesh of your flesh, it eventually leaves you to circulate in the world on its own. You can't control it, you can't protect it, and it sometimes sends you resentful text messages about how you always liked that other essay better.


Unknown said...

Well, it practically illustrates your point that I want to say I didn't *mean" the Abraham/Ishmael metaphors that seriously. Just a bit of fun. And since I wrote it, it's mine, mine, MINE!

I like the bit about alienable writing.

Natalia said...


SEB said...

Natalia, there's an anthropological term dealing with this problem of bits of ourselves that circulate beyond our control - it's called "partible personhood." And some interesting ethnography about different societies' ways of trying to ensure that we retain control of partible portions of our selves (in our culture, copyright and intellectual property law do a lot of this, but other cultures have other solutions) - see Annette Weiner's article and later book, both titled "Inalienable Possessions." I can give you more on this if you want me to consult my in-house anthropologist.

Natalia said...

Oh, excellent. I might actually use this in my next course. Thanks, SEB.

SEB said...

Great! I recommend the article for choice, actually - it's a much more concise version of the argument.