there is only seeing, and in order to go and see, one must become a pirate

Last week I was at a two-day workshop at Bristol called To Receive is Never Neutral: Towards an Ethics of Reception, which was in some ways a continuation of and response to the conference I organized at Bristol last year called Desiring the Text, Touching the Past: Towards an Erotics of Reception. And one of the quotes that was circulating around the conference was the one from the title, which is from Kathy Acker, and has been picked up and put into motion around Bristol by the indefatigable feminist-philosopher-heroine Alex Wardrop and her supervisor and my colleague, the excellent Genevieve Liveley.

As always, the mention of pirates returns me to a key passage for the way I think about reading, writing, and reception, a passage from John Mowitt’s indispensable book Text:

the text insists that artifacts mean both what we make them mean and what others might make them mean if we stopped trying to represent their interests for them. Of course, we are in no position to know what this might be, and we have to struggle to structure what we do so that it might be pirated by those whose struggle against disciplinarity might well be unrecognizable to us.

And this suddenly seems to me to be the answer to a question about the ethics of reception which kept coming back, which in a way framed the event last week: the question of clarity. The workshop opened with a keynote lecture from Sarah Wood (a scholar I admire more than I can say for her generosity and rigour and refusal to shut down the relational, the affective, the worldly, in her work) in which she talked about Derrida saying, in an interview, One does not always write to be understood, and characterizing the ‘difficulty’ of his writing as a kind of giving-to-read, a gift to the reader, a handing-over. Later, in the final session of the day, Matthew Gak (who I can’t find a decent link for, although the reviews on, er, RateMyProfessors.com speak highly of him) talked about clarity, and our responsibility as thinkers and writers to be clear, to make ourselves understood. And this is a problem which keeps coming back for me, because I affiliate myself with two traditions at once: an ‘Anglo-American’ feminism which valorizes a particular kind of clarity of expression, and a ‘French’ poststructuralist-feminist-queer tradition of thought, which valorizes a difficulty which requires some work on the part of the reader.

What the Mowitt quote does for me is bring those two aspirations together. (There’s also a quote attributed to Einstein, which I use as a compass in my writing and in my advice to students-as-writers: Make it as simple as possible, but no simpler.) Because, you know, what do we mean by clear or difficult, anyway? There are people who would be recognized as ‘clear’ writers who make me weep in frustration because their dependence on natural, everyday, colloquial language actively obscures their meaning from me, and people who I know are often experienced as ‘difficult’ or ‘obscure’ who make me melt in rapture because of the precision, the ringing clarity, the beautiful subtlety, of their expression. For one, obvious perhaps but quite fraught, and quite common, example: sex. (As in sexual intercourse, ‘having sex’, sexual activity, etc, not as in gender.) Stephen Pinker, who has basically built a whole reputation as a clear writer, a popularizer, etc, talks about ‘sex’ in such a way that I literally cannot understand what he is talking about: sometimes he talks as if it is an activity which can always potentially result in pregnancy, but sometimes he extends its range to the kinds of activity which actually count as ‘sex’ for me, as if sex between two women, one of whom is post-menopausal, was somehow a sub-category of baby-making. Whereas I nearly died with pleasure a few months ago where I finally got round to reading the Introduction to Epistemology of the Closet, by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (who my students tell me is ‘difficult’ to the point of unintelligibility), and she defines ‘sex’. Not only that, but she does so in such a way as not to exclude any activity which would be understood by the people engaging in it as ‘sex’, and so as to clarify the whole of the argument that follows.

So the kind of writing that usually gets called ‘clear’ or ‘intelligible’, I’d argue, is actually a kind of fake clarity – it’s only clear if it is read from a particular position where, for example, ‘sex’ and ‘activity likely to get someone pregnant at least potentially’ actually do mean the same thing. From a position only minimally displaced from the cultural norm, that kind of writing can be unintelligible. Whereas I always ‘understood’ Eve Sedgwick, and to some extent Derrida – I mean, I found Derrida so difficult when I was first reading him, but so enormously pleasurable, so exciting, and I knew there was something in there that I needed, that was worth waiting and struggling for, that would help me in what was a desperate situation. In Teaching to Transgress, bell hooks writes (p.59):

I came to theory because I was hurting — the pain within me was so intense that I could not go on living. I came to theory desperate, wanting to comprehend — to grasp what was happening around and within me. Most important, I wanted to make the hurt go away. I saw in theory then a location for healing.

My experience was similar to this, and I know other people who found a solution to pressing problems and real pain in theory. So the idea that ‘clear’ writing is the only possible, or even the best, solution to real, urgent, political/ethical problems, is simply not borne out by my experience, at least not this fake-clear writing which takes a short-cut to clarity by allowing ideology to do the greater part of our reading for us (Althusser: whenever we say ‘That’s obvious! That’s natural! That’s [the] right [reading]!’, that’s ideology.) Because people who are marginalized by that ideology will not be able to ‘do’ that reading, and will not benefit from it.

So the problem of clarity is really, I guess, a problem of address. All writing, of course, requires a mutual understanding between writer and reader, a shared pool of codes, connotations, significations, common experience, things-that-can-be-taken-for-granted (where would we be if we had to explain the workings of gravity in fiction every time someone walked, stood up, dropped a teacup?). The problem is how to write in such a way that we don’t rely for our meaning on the reader’s counter-signature on egregious ideological shorthands and short-cuts. And that’s how we make our writing piratable, too: and it’s only now that I see that Mowitt is saying something like the opposite of Acker, not how to be a pirate, but how to let ourselves be raided by pirates, how not to prescribe the ‘proper’ reading, the proper meaning, the proper interpretation of our work in such a way as to exclude the readings of other people whom we cannot imagine or predict.

At least that’s what I aspire to, what I will be trying to practice in this book.

(And it turns out that I’ve thought all this before. You say I am repeating/ Something I have said before. I shall say it again. / Shall I say it again?)

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2 Responses to there is only seeing, and in order to go and see, one must become a pirate

  1. Cathy Butler says:

    I agree with 99% of what you’ve said above, but I’m a bit bothered by how this works in practice.

    One the one hand… the Mowitt quote makes the point that there are readings we can’t predict or imagine. By definition, there’s not much point in trying to anticipate such readings specifically: all we can do is make sure, as far as possible, that we don’t exclude potential readings – to make our text as open and hospitable as possible. But how? One danger, I suppose, is that we end up saying nothing, and that one side of the bargain (the “artifacts mean … what we make them mean”) is sacrificed to the other (“and what others might make them mean”). Another is that, not even being able to imagine these hypothetical responses, it’s impossible to know what we might be doing unwittingly to exclude them.

    Like with Eve Sedgwick (whose book I don’t have here, so apologies if this misses her point or yours, but it seems like a good example). I totally see how she avoids the mistake Pinker makes in unthinkingly identifying sex as heterosexual, vaginal, between two fertile people, etc (and whatever else is necessary to the making of babies), and how to someone who shares Pinker’s ideological assumptions this might make her prose look more opaque and “needlessly finickety”, when in fact she’s simply not being exclusionary or heteronormative. But you say she then defines sex herself, and I’m wondering how she goes about it. Not presumably by listing all the manifold ways in which people get it on – for such a list would be bound to be incomplete and hence exclusionary. But even a more open and general kind of definition cannot but help exclude – or risk excluding – the unimaginable and unpredictable conceptions of other people. If, that is, it is to be a definition at all, which is to say (by definition, as it were) the setting of a limit to what “counts” as something.

    The “soft” answer to this is that we must simply do our best, check our assumptions various forms of privilege as best we can, and not assume that everyone shares our worldview and experience. That’s fine, but it only works with the imaginable and predictable (I can easily conceive of Pinker having a lightbulb moment and saying to himself,”How silly – I’d forgotten that lesbians exist! I must rewrite that section!”). For the unimaginable and unpredictable, it’s difficult to take precautions.

  2. Pingback: Giving Thanks, Giving Space | To Receive is Never Neutral

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