Writing: The other face [Archives:2006/910/Education]

January 9 2006

Himansu S. Mohapatra,
Professor of English, Utkal University,
Bhubaneswar – 4, India

While I have no wish to quarrel with Prof. M.N.K. Bose's Freshman-oriented take on English composition, elaborated in his two letters on writing (No. 95 & 96), published in The Yemen Times, I feel that the broader social and cultural implications of writing need to be known by teachers and students alike in order for them to be able to take their stand as writers. They need to know, for instance, that, of the many false hands that reach out to us as writers in our troubled contemporary times, that which comes to us with a Derridean name tag is probably the most deceptive, if also the one that is most seductive.

It is true that Derrida (incidentally the first anniversary of his death fell on October 10 of this year) did more than any other philosopher of the late twentieth century to keep alive the mystery and beauty of writing in a culture where it has been naturalized. The way Derrida went about celebrating writing or ecriture was by launching his 'deconstructive' raids on a series of what he called 'binary oppositions' which have defined the essence of Western civilization and culture. The most crucial of these 'deconstructive' raids was directed at the speech-writing opposition. Derrida's coup d'e-tat consisted in standing the opposition on its head, thereby unseating speech from its position of pre-eminence.

Derrida's 'deconstructive' tactic made it possible for us to make that quantum leap from the notion of writing as something fixed to the notion of it as an endless proliferation of meaning. Writing was turned almost overnight from an object of fear into an object of desire. From here it was but a short step to the full-scale poststructuralist glorification of writing as the 'kamasutra', as in Roland Barthes, and to the postmodernist valorization of it as the inevitable technology of those mixed, hybridized and Diasporan identities called 'cyborgs', obtainable in a first world space. The apotheosis of writing was complete.

Just in case it makes us forget our bearings, it is important to recall that in the early era of print capitalism in the nineteenth century writing was valued precisely on the unDerridean ground of its being able to fix and arrest meaning. The development of capitalism necessitated the formulation of contractual laws which were binding on the apprentices. Writing, by giving an air of immutability to things, became a key element in the establishment of evidence. No wonder, writing came to be perceived as a straightjacket by the poor journeymen who signed on the dotted line or affixed their thumb impressions on a legal document about, say, the minimum wage, today, but had second thoughts about the deal tomorrow. They found to their horror and amazement that, once signed, sealed and delivered, their own signature took on an awesome and alien power over them.

The emerging colonial and postcolonial literature of the Third World constitutes proof that this idea of writing as regimentation is alive and kicking even today. The stuff of this literature is nothings if not the clash between the written culture and the oral tradition. In the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe's No Longer at Ease (1960), for instance, writing is shown for the dubious thing it really is. On the one hand, it is seen as having an edge over the indigenous uli which, unlike the western-imported technology of the ink, is short-lived. On the other hand, however, by holding someone down to what he/she had said twenty years ago, it is seen to militate against change and growth which is the very principle of existence. Caught thus in a double bind, it is left to Achebe's postcolonials to shuttle uneasily between the seemingly well-endowed space of the written culture, represented aptly in the novel by the relatively well-stocked room of the father, and the intimate but stripped down space of the oral tradition, represented equally aptly by the stark and bare mother's room.

So we see that writing which for Derrida, coming at the peak of the development of print capitalism, was a way of unfixing and unhinging meaning, was at the beginning of the same historical process only a restrictive 'ethos of letters.' Which is to say that the slippery Derridean seducer is only the beguiling face of the same rapacious actor.

The written word has been implicated in the history of money making and land grabbing for far too long for this Derridean twist to the tail/tale to be anything more than a flash in the pan. The world is too graphocentric for the large majority of the people across the world to allow them the pleasures of mobility and deferral associated with the Derridean play of the sign. A recent story in The New Yorker magazine (October 27, 2003), “Love Snares” by Louis Erdrich, alerts us to this other face of writing involved in the European colonization of the land of the native Americans: “We were snared in white men's laws by then. With a flare of ink in the capital city, rights were taken and given away. Attempting to keep what was left of our land was like walking through a landscape of webs.” These are webs cast by writing, so innocuous in terms of looks, but so momentous in its consequence

How might then Derrida's 'deconstructive' take on writing work to resist this move to 'pen-lock' (the word is an English translation of the expression 'kalam-band', made famous by nineteenth-century Indian, nay, Oriya writer Fakir Mohan Senapati) not only life and land, but also, in this era of globalization, the mind? To be pen-happy and to chart one's way through the chaos of prewriting to the concrete reality of writing is not the whole story. It may be associated with the epistemologically crippling view from the top and has to be countered with writing from below.

To tell the truth, a freshman or a sophomore, knowledgeable only about the mechanics of writing, but unaware of its teleology, will probably not grow into a good writer.