Writing’s Fraught History

Was moved in various odd ways by this ? from John Lanchester’s “How Civilization Started” in the 18 Sept 2017 New Yorker:

War, slavery, rule by elites?all were made easier by another new technology of control [other than fire, detailed above]: writing. “It is virtually impossible to conceive of even the earliest states without a systematic technology of numerical record keeping,” [James C.] Scott maintains [in his book on early peoples]. All the good things we associate with writing?its use for culture and entertainment and communication and collective memory?were some distance in the future. For half a thousand years after its invention, in Mesopotamia, writing was used exclusively for bookkeeping: “the massive effort through a system of notation to make a society, its manpower, and its production legible to its rulers and temple officials, and to extract grain and labor from it.” Early tablets consist of “lists, lists, and lists,” Scott says, and the subjects of that record-keeping are, in order of frequency, “barley (as rations and taxes), war captives, male and female slaves.” Walter Benjamin, the great German Jewish cultural critic, who committed suicide while trying to escape Nazi-controlled Europe, said that “there is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” He meant that every complicated and beautiful thing humanity ever made has, if you look at it long enough, a shadow, a history of oppression.

Optimistically, we writers have clearly come a long way, and it’s wonderful that the art I’ve dedicated much of my life to has transcended these dark beginnings, that language since its invention has been so democratized and traded openly among the masses.

Pessimistically, I’m working within a tradition of power and control among state elites. I think of this both in terms of the things I write (about) and the audience to whom I’m writing. What are the ways my essays and blog posts and things maintain or reinforce ideas useful to the state in its project of oppression? What can I say that upturns such a project, in however small a way possible by one middle-class man in a comfortable job?

And how often am I writing to the very people who share this power with me?the more-literate-than-most with the gift of an audience, the gift of publishers’ interests? Very often. Probably always.

This ?’s also made me think about the term “literary citizenship” or the idea of being A Good Literary Citizen. What this means in my community is doing things that help remind other writers they’ve found an audience. It’s going to readings in your town, and tweeting about others’ publications. It’s writing a writer when you read and liked her book. And not to disparage other writers, not to burn bridges.

These are all noble acts. Lord knows I’ve come up short in this kind of citizenship any number of times. But in working to be this kind of citizen, I don’t want to neglect to be the other kind?the one that acts nobly and consciously to the benefit of others, regardless of whether they’re also writers, too.

I’m not necessarily resolving anything here except to keep writing’s long shadow in mind when I quibble over how to make the structure of some sentence more beautiful. (I just did it. I just by reflex revised that sentence twice.) I’ll try to remember that there could be more at stake.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *