For Normal Writing, part 2

(See part 1 here.)

…every time you meet a new man, the battle is on: the latest guest has to decide if you are

a) stronger than he, and
b) smarter than he, and
c) less queer.

And if you pass on all three counts, if you win the arm-wrestle, culture derby, and short-hair count, well then if he is a decent sort he usually feels you should run for President.

Norman Mailer (1959)

The 1950s are often described as the “age of conformity”, sometimes as a reference to the title of Irving Howe’s famous essay, in which he criticized his fellow intellectuals for failing to think independently about the Cold War. But it was certainly not just the mind of America that was shaped by the reigning ideology; the very body of the time, we might say, was under strong pressure to conform to what Jay Dolmage calls “normate culture”. If ever there was a time in recent history when the “normate subject” was ” white, male, straight, upper middle class,” and the normal body “profoundly and impossibly unmarked and ‘able’,” surely the 1950s was it. Indeed, the civil rights struggles of the following decade were often explicitly waged against the “reactionary” forces that pushed back towards what had come before. What was sought — what was sorely needed, many would argue — was a liberation from the  norms (racism, sexism, homophobia and elitism) that the age enforced.

Let us grant, then, at least for the sake of argument, that, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the cultural subject, the “normal American”, was a middle-class, straight, white man. And let us also grant that this norm (or package of norms) was being enforced, pushing the experiences of lower class, gay, black and female Americans to the margins, “marking” them as in some way unfit for cultural life, culturally dis-abled, we might say. As Norman Mailer put it, you wouldn’t vote for a President you didn’t think was stronger, smarter and less queer than you were. Those were the  terms of battle on the field of culture. We can even grant that the upheavals of the 1960s didn’t fully put these battles behind us. Many people today will argue that straight, white males continue to enjoy vast cultural “privileges” that are withheld from their “others”. The normalizing pressures of culture continue to operate, perhaps as they always have and always will.

All this may be granted. (It’s not an argument we need to have today.)

It is the next step in Jay’s argument that I want to challenge. He believes that writing, and in particular student writing, is one of the practices through which the normate subject is constructed and maintained. That is, emancipation from normalcy requires emancipation (let’s say) from what the Chicago Manual of Style calls “polished American prose”. At a general level, drawing on the work of Lennard Davis, he suggests that language “enforces normalcy”; he agrees with Cynthia Lewiecki-Wilson and James Wilson that “language becomes an ‘address interpellating the body’; linguistic conditions, in part, shape the body normatively.” And he applies this directly to the conventions of both usage and layout, noting that even the ideal of “clarity” distinguishes normal subjects from the great (if you will) “unwashed” masses.

We currently see this trend played out on the page through grammar and usage rules—which Sharon Crowley and Debra Hawhee suggest “are the conventions of written language that allow [people] to discriminate against one another”. But we also see normalcy imposed multitudinously through “surface features” like page layout and sentence length. We see normalcy interpellated through nebulous ideas like “clarity,” which Trinh T. Minh Ha suggests “is a means of subjection” and “conformity to the norms of well-behaved writing”. “To write ‘clearly,’” she argues, we are forced to “incessantly prune, eliminate, forbid, purge, purify; in other words, practice what may be called an ‘ablution of language’”.

Needless to say, the composition classroom is a traditional site of this ritual purification of our language. For Jay, then, it becomes another field of struggle against the conformist pressures of his age, another place, where we can “check our privilege,” to put it in the now-familiar language of our own age.

The ways that we police (or “coach”) student writing shapes student bodily possibilities. Another way to say this is to assert that dominant pedagogies privilege those who can most easily ignore their bodies.

There are three claims here that I want to resist. The first is that teaching or coaching (I often consider myself more the latter than the former) is tantamount to “policing” students. The second is that this impinges on the bodies of the students, that it shapes their possibilities for physical action and, presumably, limits their avenues of development. The third is that approaches to writing instruction that “focus on texts and thoughts, words and ideas” privilege people whose bodies are somehow unproblematic. I would argue that conventional prose (and the associated traditional pedagogies) are a boon precisely for those most in need of ignoring their bodies, and those most dependent on the respectful distance of their fellows.

Recall that the “normate subject” of 1950s culture was “white, male, straight, upper middle class”. And now consider some of the strongest voices in the early 1960s. Think of Jimmy Breslin, a working class journalist who never earned a university degree but won a Pulitzer in 1986  “for columns which consistently champion ordinary citizens”. Or think of Gore Vidal, whose homosexuality did not prevent him from being one of the most celebrated and respected writers of his generation. Or consider Harper Lee, the woman who wrote what must still be the single most taught novel in the American canon,  To Kill a Mockingbird (1960). It has in many ways become the very paradigm of American prose writing. Finally, think of James Baldwin, a poor, gay, black man who wrote the defining essay of the civil rights struggle, The Fire Next Time (1963). All of these writers escaped, not from the normalcy of prose convention, but into it. Writing was not another site of their subjugation, but a respite from what Baldwin called “the not-at-all-metaphorical teeth of the world’s determination to destroy you”. In their writing, they were able to turn the tables on the most degrading forces of their time and assert themselves without having to apologize for the color of their skin, the configuration of their chromosomes, or the bent of their desires.

This can be seen even more starkly if we go beyond cultural marginalization and look at physical disability. In his book Disability Rhetoric, Jay passes, in my opinion, a bit too quickly over the cases of Helen Keller and Jean-Dominique Bauby, whose literary productions he takes as a sign that “nobody should be assumed incapable of communication” (p. 143). Keller, most famously, managed to learn language despite being both blind and deaf. Learning that the signs that were being traced on the palm of one of her hands represented the cold water running over the skin of the other was the beginning of what would become a recognized literary talent. Bauby, who was already fully literate (indeed, he was a magazine editor) at the time that a stroke rendered him completely immobilized (“locked-in”), learned to communicate the contents of his autobiography by blinking one eye. He composed the entire book “in his head”, holding a chapter at a time in his memory and then “dictating” it one letter at a time.

For Jay, these accomplishments show that “the least dangerous assumption” is one of competence, that Bauby and Keller were, despite appearances, capable of communicating. To me, they reveal the extreme charity of the prose form, embodied in the patience of their instructors and stenographers and rendered permanent in the conventional form of the written page, where the author’s ideas are now as independent of the reader’s patience as the ideas in any other book, where the speed of reading renders the speed of writing irrelevant, i.e., where the reader is able to ignore the body of the writer to the indisputable advantage of the latter. I sometimes describe the act of composing a paragraph as working in “bullet time”. Because writers have much more time to compose themselves than the reader will (conventionally) take to read them, the writer faces the reader in, as it were, slow motion. Like Keanu Reeves in the Matrix, writers are able to dodge bullets, even stop them in mid-air. In the text, being able to write is like knowing a virtual kind of kung fu.

In his famous essay on the 1971 Ali-Frazier fight, Norman Mailer described “ego” simply as the “state of our psyche that gives us the authority to tell us we are sure of ourselves when we are not.” Achieving this state, perhaps, requires us to be able to, as Jay puts it, ignore our bodies. The authority of the ego transcends our all-too-familiar bodily limitations, however socially or materially constructed they may be. Freed from the limitations of a particular time and a particular space, the text gives us confidence we may not have in the here and the now of our embodiment. Indeed, Mailer suggested that boxers find their ego in the ring, which separates them from the complexities of social life and puts them face to face with a problem they understand how to deal with. Ironically, it becomes the “least dangerous” place. I believe that writers likewise find their authority (there’s a reason we call them “authors”) in the text where they, too, are able to transcend the particularities of their embodiment. As writing instructors, we teach them how to control this space. We show them how to handle themselves. We train them to be themselves in prose.

Leave a Reply

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