Reading and writing are central skills in our society. Our school systems spend an almost worryingly large portion of its resources (and of the pupils' time) on making sure these skills are acquired. When the metamorphosis from pupil to student takes place, the most common realization is that it takes even more reading and writing to get along in the world of the university. Not to mention worklife with its more or less sensical demands. If you're a broken human being should you not have a cell phone, you've almost broken your bond to the human species should you not be able to read and write.
Learning to handle the text medium - both as a consumer and a producer - is therefore of central importance. While it might not be necessary to turn everyone into a Marcel Proust, who successfully wrote 600 interesting pages of fiction where the protagonist doesn't really do anything but lie on their bed wondering whether they should do something interesting or not, some level of proficiency is required in this society of ours. Achieving minimal levels of literacy doesn't take too many years, admittedly, and some would say that this level is usually achieved at around ten years of age, but the fact that there is a minimal level says more than the contingent fact of where it happens to be.
Reading and writing are linked, but not identical. It is possible to be a phenomenal reader whilst at the same time a terrible writer; and, conversely, it is possible to not be able to read the backside of a milk carton whilst being able to formulate the most delicate of poetry. (Blame postmodernism.) In general, though, it goes that the more one reads, the more proficient one becomes in both reading and writing. And the same goes for writing, mutatis mutandis. Practice is skill in this case too.
One thing that separates reading/writing from other skills, such as cooking, biking or gardening, is that it's hard to argue that there's an upper limit to it. Cooking might be a difficult art, but you will eventually learn the perfect ways to cook a noodle. The perfect way of making a text, however, is forever out of reach. James Joyce was on to something in his more peculiar works, but just as there are just about as many interpretations of Finnegans Wake as there are readers, there are no doubts that it could have been written better. Not better as in more comprehensible - Joyce's texts are not to be understood, as it were - but rather more interesting. The fact that you can parse a ridiculous amount from the shifts and interplays between the mutually exclusive yet juxtapositionally present interpretations is one thing, but that does not say that any of that is as interesting as it could be.
For those of you who haven't read Joyce (and who have the good notion of not doing it any time soon), it helps to know that good ol' James systematically used misspelling, puns, convoluted sentencing, unclear subjects, annoying moves and at times pure busywork (such as, say, not doing punctuation for fifty pages or so) to create literary effects. Rules for good languaging and virtuous habits in text production are seen as helpful suggestions, to be ignored at will. It's not that he didn't know what he was doing - he knew exactly what he was doing, and did it anyway.
Fortunately enough, we don't always have to know what we are doing when we do writing. Most of the time, all we need to know is how things are usually done, and then do this until it becomes a habit. Many good authors claim to not know what they do when they do what they do, yet are still able to continue doing good texts with the same goodness that made them good authors. Those writing shorter texts - such as, say, filling out requisition forms in their workplace capacities - don't even have to know they are doing writing. They are filling out a form, after all, which is a whole other thing than performing a text, and all the pretension that goes with it.
Likewise, we don't really need to know what we're doing when we're reading. Most of the time, we don't even need to remember the names of the protagonists to get something out of reading - even when we're not reading Joyce. It's not necessary to consciously note that this particular text does thing other texts don't do, and you can usually get away with doing a standard reading. They are words on a page - why making things harder than it needs to be by noting all these tiny details?
If you only remember one thing from reading this, I hope it's something along the lines that texts - and their reading and writing - are far more complicated than they seem. Not to mention the relationship between reading and writing. One could of course, learn the basics and declare oneself done with it, just as there are many who learn arithmetic and declare themselves done with mathematics. It cannot be denied, however, that there are many exciting things one can do with the more elaborate forms of algebra. As soon as one's relationship to texts reach a sufficiently complex point, everything changes - literally everything.
The basics of any notion of text production is that there is something to be said, and that this is to be said in an effective way. There are - evidently - certain ways of doing a text that are more effective than others at performing that which is to be performed (and said). The more artful you become at this, the more intuitive and immediate it becomes to find the how that goes with each what. How should this particular text behave in order to do what I want it to do?
This something that ought to be said is sometimes also something that must be said. When transcending the basics, we stumble upon the realization that what must be said is not always congruous with that which can be said, and that we cannot say some things we must say due to things we are forced to say that exclude these things from the realms of possibility. To be brutal about it: in conditions where it is mandatory to prefix everything with "heil Hitler", it is a hard sell to proceed with the words "thus the democratic revolution begins, comrades!". The one excludes the other, and that which must be said has precedence over that which can be said; when the former has been uttered, it has brought along a whole arsenal of thoughts and ideological positions from which it is hard to backtrack. Which goes without saying.
This critical perspective (any perspective that can see that things do not have to be the way they are is automatically critical) eventually leads to the realization that this exclusion of certain possible utterances in practice amounts to the exclusion of certain possible subjects - possible ways of thinking and being. When that which has to be said includes certain fundamental assumptions about the world, it becomes that much harder to be someone who does not share there assumptions. And somewhere about here, the title of this post starts to make sense: writing as selfgenerating competence.
Text is not only about that which is said, or how it is said, or if it is allowed to be said, but also about who is saying that which is said. The text generates the subject, with words, and being able to write becomes (literally) a self-generating process. Being able to write is not only about writing a text that works in the specific context one happens to find oneself in, but also about constructing a subject in general. Mainly one's own, but also, increasingly, the reader's.
You of course see where this is headed. -
Originally published February 26, 2010