former (shoddy) title: “Why shoddy writing is better than good writing”
I tried to write a perfect piece for this blog last week. It was going to be about how online conversation might fail to give us the deep communication with other people that I had optimistically credited it with in my last post (Know thyself, blog thyself: Socrates and the internet). I was going to talk about the facile ways in which we use the internet to make mirrors of ourselves, seeking out similar people with similar views, honing our lists of friends and followers to create an uncritical image of ourselves projected outwards, on to other people, rather than inviting those others inwards to join in the kind of conversations that rework, revise the conceptions of ourselves that we have. I wanted to relate our mirror-making use of the internet to certain discussions of the ways in which we use great literature to revise our conceptions of ourselves – in fact to reconstitute ourselves. On these accounts of literature, each work – each novel for example – is completed by each reader in her act of reading it, and in its completed versions it is about the reader. This literary mirror-making might seem like a rather imperialist account of reading, in which we displace diverse fictional others – those great personalities of Achilles, Hamlet, Dorothea Brooke, etc. – by making them the locations of a rehearsal of our own personality. But that is not straightforwardly right, because these accounts of literature are ones in which the reading self is not constituted antecedently to each individual’s project of rendering it in words, in narrative; and for that reason each reading self is completed in each literary work just as much as each literary work is completed in each reading self: the mirror is a two-way one. When I make a mirror of myself, either by shaping my online contacts or by reading a novel and finding myself there, that can be saved from being a crassly uncritical, other-denying act by a recognition that my self is made and remade in the course of its reflection in others, and in the course of reflecting those others. On one account in particular, given in Garry L. Hagberg’s “Literature and the Constitution of Personhood,” this kind of mutuality flows from Wittgensteinian thoughts about the essentially public nature of meaning, the generation within collaborative linguistic practices of much that is wrongly thought of as existing antecedently to such practices.
As I say, I tried to write of these things. And I tried to get it right. And I failed, and so I posted nothing. That seemed ironic, and more than usually self-defeating, because the attempt to make a piece of writing perfect is overbearingly excluding of the contributions, the reactions, the active presence of readers in much the same way as we are guilty of when we engage in the crassest, most uncritical mirror-making in our formation of online contacts or in our reading of literature — when we engage in the kind of mirror-making that seeks only self-confirmation (the confirmation of a ready-made unchanging self) from interaction with others. What is left for the reader when a text is perfect, other than to say ‘Yes!’ (which is make their mind a mirror of a set of meanings rendered antecedently)? What becomes of the idea that the writings in which the self is rendered are radically incomplete before being read, and are completed in the course of being read, in the course of being apprehended in the active mind of a reader – who simultaneously attains part of her self-completion?
When I think of my notional reader saying ‘Yes!’ to my words, I’m reminded of Joseph Grand in Camus’s novel The Plague who has spent many years working on a novel but has yet to complete the first sentence, because he wants it to be so perfect that on reading it a publisher will call ‘Hats off!’ to his staff, to honour its perfection. It is very important to Grand his sentence is ‘true’. He says that he wants it to be a ‘photograph’ of reality (to be a mirror of something antecedently given). Truth is an honourable ambition, and indeed Camus calls Grand the hero of his novel. But Grand’s pursuit of truth is absurd, because truth in a novel is not captured in sentences: it is false that Grand’s “elegant young horsewoman” might have been “seen riding a handsome sorrel mare along the flowery avenues of the Bois de Boulogne,” no matter how much he tinkers with the words. Truth in fiction is captured in far larger units, perhaps in the narrative taken as a whole; and Grand’s perfectionism is suspending that narrative – in his book and in his life. Mesmerised by a mirroring relationship between a sentence and a woodland scene, he is excluding himself from a creative exploration of truths that are constituted in our active fluid investigation of them.
Much better, perhaps, for Grand and certainly for me, to write a piece that is full of holes, a piece that is porous – open to others’ correction, enlargement, clarification, completion. Blogging seems the ideal platform for this kind of constructive imperfection. What’s said online can be said accumulatively; it can be said once today, and again and differently tomorrow and the day after, with the value of what is written being observed in the progression through many flawed efforts rather than simply in some notional final rendering. That accumulation would be a narrative of the repeated formation and reformation of meanings in the course of an attempted communication with others and in the light of their responses. As such, it would display the truth that, here and in my previous post, I am trying to state: the essentially communicative, social nature of the project of knowledge.