In what ways can writing be delineated, or genrefied, or divided into clear and distinct species, by which its borders are analyzable and the domain of its discourse is only a scientific calculus? How, for example, are we to form the line that splits, that separates, that divides in fact, writing that is historical from writing that is psychological and writing that is fictional? And, if no such line exists, how are we even to form a conception of two genres as, in any important ways, distinct? For example, what are the essential differences between history and fiction? Or does the question already presuppose the faith in the line (is there anything essential about a genre at all)?
These are only a few of the questions that are considered in Colin Koopman's recent essay On Certain Species of Writing. The essay, which is quite long, deals with conceptions of writing, and lines that supposedly divide different forms (genres) of writing. These are lines that, in the end, only institute un-necessary ideological and discursive incommensurability that undermine any possibility of interdisciplinary communication. Koopman writes:
"If history and philosophy are, 'in their essence', distinct from fiction and poetry, then how shall we ever seek to improve the discourses of history and philosophy? How shall we inform them, politically and ethically? To what name will these forms of writing call? To what call will they listen? Or shall they forever be closed in upon themselves? Perhaps, they shall. This, of course, was the utopic (and also atopic) dream that inspired Plato's suggested banishment of poetry in his Republic."
Plato's ancient distinction between poetry and philosophy, Koopman argues, severely invades our modern conception of what counts as viable and good authorship. It is, he argues, rare to find writing that is at once historical and fictional. There is the exception of historical fiction, which, however, in most of its manifestations, is the stuff of cheap mass-market paperbacks--uninspired, vapid, and certainly not avant-garde or creative, in any sense.
Authors like Koopman (and certain others like Italo Calvino, Ryan Asgard, and even Jacques Derrida) express a hope that hypertextuality will help to highlight some of our fundamental assumptions about writing---what writing has to be, how it has to be compartmentalized, and why any particular organization of writing (sciences of the text) is necessary and important. They hope, of course, to help us see these as just that: assumptions. Hypertext, many hope, can help us dispel some of the important myths of writing: writing is always linear, there is always a clear distinction between author and reader, all texts have an author, all texts are self-contained and self-identical, any text is a wholesome and indivisible unity. Through creative uses of hypertext and rhetoric (such as Derrida's Glas and Michael Joyce's Afternoon: A Story) many serious literary critics have come to reject a number of these assumptions, and if not reject them certainly accept their need for some form of 'proof' more solid than faith alone.
In his essay, Koopman argues how all texts are subject to a certain tormenting before the reader as regards their genre. A reader can always ask, 'Is this fiction?', 'Is this history?' even against the stated wishes of the author. And, due to the citability of writing, we can always place any text in any other context. Perhaps this is what has happened, Koopman says, when we place Homer next to Horace on our shelves, rather than next to Heidegger or Herodotus. In other words, even if the author expressly states it (and many times they do not), we can always question the genre to which a text supposedly belongs. Regardless, this happens over time as conceptions of disciplines and discourses shift. Unlike the seventeenth century, philosophy is now commonly considered a closer cousin to history and literature than it is to physics and mathematics. Descartes would probably have disputed such a genealogy.
And yet, do fiction and history ever announce themselves? Certainly, they need not always. Take Borges' excellent book The Garden of Forking Paths, in which a number of small essays and accounts are given, all in the rhetoric of traditional historical narrative, all at the same time fictive. Borges' reviews of imaginary books, his cartographies of mythological lands and bodies, is perhaps the closest our century has come to realizing the lack of creativity inspiring our modern poets, philosophers, and historians.
Perhaps, as Koopman and others (such as George Landow) have suggested, the internet (as a certain hyper-hypertext) will come to undermine these assumptions. Let me digress shortly into consideration of our habitat of writing (and others like it): Everything2.
There are as many conceptions of E2 as there are users. Some consider this place a repository of knowledge, a virtual encyclopedia. Others consider it only a warehouse of perspectives. Others find in it a beautiful unfolding of creativity, poetry, fiction, friendship, community, etc. etc.. It is, I believe, at all times, all of these things, and also none of them strictly. Just like Borges' Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius (or his A Guided Dream), the author's conception of the text is not always announced, nor need it be. The delight in Borgesian texts (or those of Milorad Pavic) is not their clever recitation of so-called facts (that dogmatic entity left over by metaphysical philosophy), nor the poetic quality of language, the subtle orchestration of the arrangement (and subsequent translation) of words and letters on the page. There is something more creative (and so more deeply ethical and political) at work in a text that tries to cross genres that many believe can never be crossed.
"Borges," Koopman writes, "builds a bridge between history and fiction, between poetry and philosophy. Yes, he offers us arguments. They are astounding, they are beautiful and flawless. At the same time, he chokes our throats with his poetic use of language. And yet still he holds us in further awe as we unfold the mysteries of his texts, as we realize that they aren't quite true, but they aren't quite false either, they are somewhere between history and falsity, they are a third realm which Plato and the philosophers failed to take notice of, the realm of the unsaid, the unwritten."
Derrida wrote (in Writing and Difference
) that, "To write is to know that what has not yet been produced within literality has no other dwelling place". And this is exactly the shore upon which writers like Borges and Derrida always hope to sit, the announcement of the unannounced, the writing of the unwritten. The liberalism (the anti-conservativism) implicit in such writing is precisely what makes it such a deeply political and ethical project. It is, perhaps, the true meaning of: free speech
And so, here on E2, we must be careful in taking a text for something that it is not. Much writing is criticized here (and for many reasons). One complaint I have often heard regards the invasion of certain forms of writing (such as history) by other forms of writing (such as fiction). There are concerns about the undermining of so-called facts, the ridiculing of so-called truth. Yet how are these unclaimed movements orchestrated, how are these invisible and unannounced wars waged, how are these terrorist rebellions propagated? And besides, what are the concepts of 'fact' and 'truth' in the service of? What politics or ethics benefits, in a practical manner, from the stasis of 'fact' and 'truth'? What is the value of the concept of truth that many hold so dearly? What are you salvaging from the shipwrecked shores of an antiquated epistemology and poetics? Is your truth more important than free speech, than the very possibility of a new writing, of a new arrangement of words, thoughts, beliefs? What is paramount here? Are facts of ultimate value, or are words, and the freedom they can engender?
These are the questions raised by Colin Koopman's essay On Certain Species of Writing. I hope they are of relevance to the many writing projects that may exist here.