Thursday, June 14, 2007

A Necessary Conflict

When a passage of text densely encapsulates an idea that strikes me as profoundly significant, every time I return to it, it retraces old connections even as it draws new ones that the shift in the context in which I’m reading it demands. One such passage is Lyn Hejinian’s “Who Is Speaking?”, an essay I return to periodically because it eloquently and forcefully reminds me that writing words on a page can never be an isolated act, however lonely writing may seem. The essay begins

Invention is central to the private as to the public life of a writer, but it is of the latter that I want to speak on this occasion. At stake in the public life of a writer are the invention of a writing community; the invention of the writer (as writer and as person) in that community; and the invention of the meanings and meaningfulness of his or her writing.

Almost every writer is faced with the relentless necessity of inventing him- or herself anew as a writer every day, and the task of considering the terms in which this can be accomplished is an ongoing one.

But the invention of oneself as a writer in a community is only part of a larger question; it should be accompanied by the necessity for inventing that community, and thereby participating in the making of the terms that, in turn, themselves play a crucial role in making invention possible (or, in bad scenarios, impossible). One must think about the invention of the community in and as consideration of the politics, ethics, and psychology of speaking in it. And one must do all this even while addressing the question of how the community and one’s way of being in it influences one’s writing.

Among other things, Hejinian’s talking here about the social, intellectual, and ideological construction of discourse. I have an idea that writers who ride the edges of larger discursive communities have no choice but to be conscious of the terms of participation and the difficulties involved in inventing oneself within the discursive community. Feminists writing science fiction necessarily contest “the terms in which this can be accomplished” even as they must in some fundamental sense accede to them if they want their writing to be meaningful. It’s a constant dilemma, a never-ending struggle.

This conflict, you know, has something to do with the uproar over the place of work by women in the f/sf genre. It’s not the whole story, but it’s certainly an important subtext.

Hejinian continues:

The question of community and creativity is not one issue but a whole complex of interrelated public and private issues, and as one brings the pressure of one’s attention to bear on one of them, another of them rises up, requiring that one adjust one’s emphasis. But this adjusting of emphasis is essential to keeping the relationship between oneself and the community viable and productive.

Doing so is not easy. There is an inevitable conflict between community and creativity, and writers very often feel torn between the possibilities of solitude and the requirements of the social. Caught in such conflicts, one might ask why one would want to invent a community in the first place. Do we need community? Do we want one?

My answer to these questions is blunt: yes, we do need community (whether we want one or not). Fiction is neither written nor read in a vacuum. This is true for the f/sf genre as a whole---and is true, too, for the smaller sub-community of feminist sf, which I’ve been arguing for the last few years continues to be essential for the development of the set of ideas and meanings that are explored and produced in feminist sf uniquely. And just in case it needs to be said: feminist sf’s viability is contingent on its relation to the f/sf genre. It can’t exist in isolation. And that’s why this conflict over our “place” in the genre is absolutely vital.

Hejinian’s answer is this:

[W]ant [community] or not, we have it. And this is the case not just because the world is with us. To the extent that humans know about humans, community occurs. A community consists of any or all of those persons who have the capacity to acknowledge what others among them are doing. In this sense, even solo sailors and hermits living in total isolation in desert or mountain caves belong to communities---communities, in the broadest sense, consisting of the persons for whom solo sailing or hermetism is meaningful.

These communities do not, as such, preexist the solo sailing or the hermit’s retreat. In a profound sense, the person setting fort alone to sail or entering his or her hermit’s cave, in doing so summons into existence the community in which to do so makes sense---even if, as will sometimes be the case, it is not a present but a past (though not, strictly speaking, preexisting) or future community, consisting of those whose past or future capacity to understand, that is being invoked.

Any characteristic act---whether it is a sailor’s sailing or a hermit’s withdrawal or a writer’s writing---is an act of reciprocal invocation. It activates a world in which the act makes sense. It invents.

Writing---even when it’s "only" about someone else's writing---is active. It helps make the world. And because it does that, it means that the very act of writing it is in some sense a public rather than a private act. (I think I might also argue that every act of writing, whether it results in public dissemination of a text, is a performance that implies the presence of an audience, a notion of writing that I explored in the paper I presented last month at WisCon.)

Hejinian also touches on what I noted above---that “The community creates the context in which the work’s happening happens. It does so by generating ideas and work that might not have come into being otherwise, and, in the best sense, by challenging everyone involved. In this last respect, a community presents a more difficult milieu than that of the support group.” She also notes that “communities are mobile and mutable, and they are not always easily habitable… If, as a member of a community, one is flourishing, one may not be inclined to ask questions of it. But if one is not, it is crucial to do so, in order to discover and accomplish what is to be done.”

Isn’t that the conflict being waged, in a nutshell?

For those interested in reading the whole essay, it can be found reprinted in Hejinian’s collection, The Language of Inquiry (University of California Press, 2000).

1 comment:

Susanna J. Sturgis said...

This sent me back to Nelle Morton, the feminist theologian, whose concept of "hearing to speech" is one of the cornerstones of my credo. This is from the 1977 essay "Beloved Image," which is collected in her book The Journey Is Home (Beacon Press, 1985).

"It was in a small group of women who had come together to tell our own stories that I first received a totally new understanding of hearing and speaking. I remember well how one woman started, hesitating and awkward, trying to put the pieces of her life together. Finally she said: 'I hurt . . . I hurt all over.' She touched herself in various places as if feeling for the hurt before she added, 'but . . . I don't know where to begin to cry.' She talked on and on. Her story took on fantastic coherence. When she reached a point of most excruciating pain no one moved. No one interrupted. Finally she finished. After a silence, she looked from one woman to another. 'You heard me. You heard me all the way.' Her eyes narrowed. She looked directly at each woman in turn and then said slowly: 'I have a strange feeling you heard me before I started. You heard me to my own story.' I filed this experience away as something unique. But it happened again and again in other such small groups of women. It happened to me. Then, I knew I had been experiencing something I had never experienced before. A complete reversal of the going logic in which someone speaks precisely so that more accurate hearing may take place. This woman was saying, and I had experienced, a depth hearing that takes place before the speaking -- a hearing that is far more than acute listening. A hearing engaged in by the whole body that evokes speech -- a new speech -- a new creation. The woman had been heard to her own speech" (pp. 127-128).

This happens on a community-wide level as well as in small groups. The "depth hearing" of a community evokes writing and storytelling that would never be done -- couldn't even be imagined -- in a social vacuum. It's true of feminist f/sf, and of feminist writing in general, and probably of any writing that isn't in one way or another commissioned by the powers-that-be.