Suppose that the world were no obstacle. Suppose that there was no coming to terms with things, no thinking them through, but that instead you plotted to make the world as you wanted. Words and forces and history and matter and the very laws of nature: none immune from change by your imagination, your inner big bang, your conspiracies to reset reality. By your dreams. Freud thought that the impulse was infantile. Why can’t I hit, bite, scream; take, do, or eat what I want? What real world? What shame? Hence sweet dreams, where what escaped the infant by day is made good by night, freely, simply, exactly. Just as it should have been.
But there is seldom this one-to-one delivery for we who have, in Freud’s words (On Dreams), “learnt the futility of desire”, and who would be surprised, or alarmed, by its baseness: “No dream” writes Freud, “is inspired by other than egoistic emotions”. And so, in adulthood, they must first distort and obscure. They substitute, symbolise, dramatise. Hence weird dream, where things are not quite like waking life; it is only by thinking through the dream, later, that you “stir up [the] associations which were not noticeable” in it, this being a basis of psychoanalysis. No no, it was not about x, but about a, b, and c … to which x is connected in your mind. Nor is it about y, … which really stood for z. Your wish is granted, but under cover of night. Dreams, wrote Freud, “are concealed realisations of repressed desires”, themselves a mix of the old and new. The desires break through because, in sleep, the “balance of power” shifts to the subconscious and “what is repressed can no longer be kept back”. The tide unstemmed. The floodgates broken.
Freud allows that some adult dreams may still be true to life, i.e., meaningful and intelligible at face value. Mirrors to our real lives. But they are, it seems, the exception to the (binary) rule. Dreams were either true to life or not, and only the latter were, for Freud, in need of analysis.
But then what Freud took to be obfuscating weirdness seems, in this case, to be an exercise of creative license. It seems that what is strange, in what he calls/spells “phantasy”, is not always there to protect me. It is there to bend reality for me. Imagery. Hyperbole. It is, nevertheless, a wish fulfilled. This is obvious in the case of a sex dream, but is true as well of my many, many textual fantasies: I have dreamed of a diary tied not to a person but a household; of a text that is published not as a book but as a labyrinth in a gallery; of an otherwise unassuming text that survives an apocalypse and lives on as an inadvertent scripture in the neo-society.
N.b. these were not dreams per se, but day-dreams. Visions that I later used as the concepts for short fiction. But what is the difference to the subconscious? Sleep was, for Freud, the paradigmatic genie that would fulfil wishes; but daydreaming, and creative writing qua world building, were others. “A strong experience in the present awakens in the creative writer a memory” writes Freud, in Creative Writers and Daydreaming, “from which there now proceeds a wish which finds its fulfilment in the creative work” (my emphasis). That work, like a dream, creates a world that can upend the “real”, freeing it to realise desires old, new and ongoing. And that, perhaps, is why I cannot start my own stories except by asking how; how, that is, to realise such and such a desire.
OR: HOW TO WRITE FOR ‘EVERYONE’
At first writers would not do anything differently. The implant would be backwards compatible. A reader could use it with any old text, whether it was Hamlet or The Holy Bible. It would intercept the signals as they were picked up from the page by the retina, from the audiobook by the cochlear, or else from the braille via the fingertips. It would read the text; at the same time it would read the brain in which it was itself lodged. It would ask whether they, the reader, were sick of reading about straight people? And did they not have a preference for stories that just sort of got to the point? Could we skip Chapter 3 altogether? The implant asked 1010 questions of this kind, mined the reader’s mind, and rewrote the text on the fly, intercepting the senses and projecting a personalised version of the text on their eyes, ears and/or fingers. One did not really see, hear or touch what they were reading. The implant was fast. It edited reality in advance of your consciousness.
It turns out, for instance, that Hamlet loves Horatio. They even hook up— sweet prince indeed, resting not in his doom but in his friend’s bed chambers.
Words new to the reader we defined on the fly, or subbed out with a familiar synonym.
Scientific papers were simplified. The news but with context.
Everything … for dummies.
Writers, for one, found that the texts they were reading often changed to reflect what they themselves were working on, but always with a difference that stood out; that is to say, that taught them something new about their practice. Wait, you could tell a story mostly without scenes? Characters? Dialogue?
Naturally, there was a sliding scale—reader defined—from “protect” to “please”. On “protect” only hate speech and triggers were redacted; but at the upper limit the text was virtually re-written from scratch. This too was instantaneous (in clinical trials the implant outpaced even the fastest users; indeed the rewrite was often so good that it increased their words-read-per-minute).
The implant did much of the work at night, reading the brain while the reader was asleep. It went deep. It sat in on their dreams. It chewed on fresh memories. (The full list of inputs were promoted, as follows, by the Company in the months leading up to the product launch: the users’ past [including memories they themselves had suppressed], their present moment and their projected future; their hopes, fears and dreams; their core values; their self-image and identity; in short both their declarative and implicit memory). In truth the implant also picked up on things that the R&D team had not known or anticipated.
“Well, what are they?” asked a director, of the unidentified signals. No one spoke; someone sipped from a glass of stale meetingwater on the mahogany table. The neuros shook their heads. The director shrugged. The board did not demur. They would let the implant use all the data available and sell the discoveries to an undisclosed affiliate.)
It was not long, of course, before writers felt threatened. They felt that they had lost creative control. Some sued for copyright infringement, feeling that the Company was profiting from their work. The courts were at a loss. Who was the author—the reader, writer or the implant? That was beside the point, the writers replied. What the implant churned out was not just derivative, but detractive. No one read their work anymore—not exactly. No one thought of the craft, and not least the publishers, who had started talking instead about potential. They looked only at the structure. The big picture. Is the piece easily adaptable? Is there room for the reader?
The trick was to keep it broad. Writers stopped being specific and started giving instructions. Their work now resembled a manual. They wrote not for the user but for the implant: “Open with what is on the reader’s mind at the moment, e.g., how to meet a like-minded guy and get a friends with benefits thing going. Follow with a quote from something they have read (suggesting that the user is not alone in thinking this); then an insight that they themselves would have had in the foreseeable future. New paragraph. Open with an anecdote from recent memory. Follow with a relevant idea from their reading history…”
It was pure Form. The instructional neo-works were often shorter than the texts they inspired via the implant, but they were still printed as books or published as e-titles with the author’s image in the cover jacket/front matter. These were sold in stores, advertised not with cover images but text-only placeholders. “TITLE: A PROBLEM YOU HAVE BEEN HAVING FOR A WHILE” read a book in the window on the corner of Little Lonsdale & Russell St, translated by one implant to read “HOW TO TURN HIM GAY”.
Wordsmiths soon grew to relish the art of writing for everyone. Awards were inaugurated for writers with the best command of abstraction. One was given to an author from Parkville “for writing a Bildungsroman that readers report was 99% accurate”. Others embraced the implant as co-writer. Books appeared with a one line instruction and 1,000 blank pages for the implant to write “a text that makes [them] happy”. By then of course readers had realised that they themselves could write the texts of their dreams merely by tweeting directly to their implant: “A story in which what I most want is made a reality…”
I am, it seems, still stuck on Saussure. But then so what? Saussure himself granted that his Course on General Linguistics was old news (“no one disputes that linguistic signs are arbitrary” he noted circa 1916; and, moreover, it was already clear that language was linear). On the other hand the consequences of those principles were, he said, innumerable and incalculable. Saussure was talking about the consequences for linguistics (or, more broadly, semiotics). But I suppose what I am asking is this: what are those consequences for me?
Say that I made The Word a part of who I am. Not power, money, glory, discovery or etc., but writing alone as the locus, the thing that would give effect to my ego. The stakes are suddenly higher for language, charged as it is with no less than the tip of Maslow’s pyramid—with fulfilment—and not of a wish, but of my very existence. Here perhaps is a hint of the ‘repressed desire’ or the ‘latent content’; what, for Freud, was obfuscated by the manifest dream because the truth, laid bare, would worry me.
After all, it takes time to hone the craft. Is it all this writing really worth it? What am I giving up by doing it? I want to know I’m making the most of my time, and that writing will be ‘enough’ for me. So, I ask questions. What can writing not do? Or be? What, in other words, do you lose from having words as your material? As your medium?
(I never thought to ask, of course, whether I was enough for language.)
And so Saussure takes on a guru’s importance to me. What are the laws? The fundamentals of language? How could his linguistics make my dreams come true, or else furnish proof that the written word isn’t good enough––as though it were soft clay, or mud, and I were a sculptor? As it happens, Saussure has done both. He is both a genie in the bottle and a devil’s advocate, perched on my right shoulder.
Let us speak again of arbitrariness. If signs/signals/words are paired with signifieds/ significations/concepts by “collective habit” alone, then “all the individuals linguistically linked in this manner,” writes Saussure, “will establish among themselves a kind of mean; all of them will reproduce – doubtless not exactly, but approximately – the same signs linked to the same concepts.” Communication is born, but it is doomed to be interpreted. The associations will be different for each speaker (“axis of simultaneity”), to say nothing of differences in use (“axis of succession”). Saussure did not see this as a problem for language; on the contrary, it was a principle that made language possible.
Why then the fantasy of Mindwriting?
The difference may be in motive, or else in the standard imposed. Saussure’s concern for the ‘linguistic mean’ was descriptive, not normative; it sufficed to account for the effectiveness of language, but was not a critique of its expressive potential. Meanwhile, in the throngs of my subconscious, the idea is subject to the harsher tests of my ego, i.e., how does the linguistic mean limit what I can do with writing and, thus, my ‘potential’. What if a reader means something different by my words? What if they do not have the same … significance? You can only write so much—so many details—on the axis of succession; it is fused, as Gadamar would say, with the reader’s horizon. Thus what you write won’t work for everyone, or even, perfectly, for anyone. It is already lossy in respect to the writer. As Gadamer notes, in Truth & Method, “The written word and what partakes of it—literature—is the intelligibility of mind transferred to the most alien medium”. Would that there were a way to write a piece, one piece, that would transfer without loss, i.e., speak to every reader. In Mindwriting, then, this overlap of meaning is not eliminated so much as concealed; the regression to the mean is left to the implant, as is interpretation, so that what is read could be traced to that mean, as source, or influence, but has in fact already replaced it. The irony is that the implant is only possible with a linguistic mean(ing), since that is still how authors write their instructions for it. In this sense the mindwriter is not a subversion of Saussure’s principle so much as an attempted transcendence.
This may be self-aggrandising in the extreme, but then that is the point. The fantasy that is ‘fulfilled’ by mindwriting is not a negating of Saussure but a speculative expansion, circumvention, or elaboration of him. It does not break his linguistics but instead fictionalises a bending or warping to ‘improve’ it (with respect to my needs). I want language to be as it is … but to do the impossible.
OR: HOW TO TURN LITERATURE TO LANGUAGE
The writing need not change, so much as the attitude. What one looked for in a piece of writing—the craft, style, story, ideas and so on—would be secondary. Instead, there would be one test of a text’s value, and one only: whether its Title entered everyday discourse.
The point would not be to use words so much as dethrone them. Authors would be free to give their books names as they once had, using words well known to everyone already (Wilted Leaves: A Novel; 50 Ways to Guacamole!, etc.) but doing so would be seen as a risk, if not an idiocy, in the industry. Old words are stubborn, they decided; phrases long, people forgetful.
Those who coin new words for their titles have the best chance of being successful and thus are the ones who are signed by the publishers. Neologisms are the norm. The shelves in bookstores and libraries read like a list of words lately added to the Oxford English Dictionary: greengood, nobular, hotphone.
In practice, writers would not make up words so much as concepts. No point in calling something ‘Squirtsquirm’ if its title could just as well have been ‘Sex’. Readers sense this. Squirtsquirm would need to essay in a new kind of sex, or else suck out, and sharpen, part of what the catch-all ‘sex’ meant (as it happens, Squirtsquirm was a work about ‘sex in the rain’, a concept that it hoped to promote in the sexual practices of English-speakers as much as the word that it would, ideally, popularise in their lexicon). This is not to say that there can be no ‘sex’ books, or books about ‘art’, or pieces ‘On Beauty’ (for which the titles have been, e.g., Bangbang, Sanse, and On Bodylight, respectively). They simply have not been very successful.
Better to start small—they realised—or else specific, and thereafter write your way up to a big idea in the abstract.
The novelty of the concept does not, however, always predict how the word will fare in the language. Critics are often quick to declare a new book upsolutionary (a word that, in a work by the same name, replaced ‘revolutionary’ [adding the condition that a revolution “must have a plan for the aftermath”]). Thus most new words gain some traction circa the book launch, when readers of the work, fans of the author, early adopters and members of book clubs are at their most enthusiastic, insisting on the word in conversation. But usage is best tested when the hype dies down and the next season of word-works are launched, splitting attention and dooming many hopeful neo-words to the ether … or the subjects of academic papers authored a generation later. Among last year’s losses: yukistop, farenheist, antichair and, my personal fave, tomhardery.
The measure of languiture is as much a numbers game as it is a language game. These days, book critics lacking a mathground are paired with trained statisticians or professional pollsters who cut their teeth in election campaigns on the samescale of the book’s distribution. Reviews are at least 50% quantitative in page space and word count; scattergraphs that plot the uptake of the title in a sample of discourse (speech, social media posts, Alexa ranked articles and newspapers of record) are considered standard practice. User friendly graphs are themselves considered a ‘review’ of a work, particularly as funding cuts in media prevent long, written reviews that are seen by most as being dinosure, i.e. old school and unreliable, anyway.
In this market, ‘buzzword’ is synonymous with ‘promise’. To be in the top 100 new words for ten years running means, in effect, to have written a ‘classic’.
On the other hand, the charts can miss the slow onset or selective popularity of certain wordworks. This is because the most diehard of readers will apparently persist with the title even if it does not reach a national, or vernacular, scale. Cult hits live on as slang in subcultures organised around their ideas, as in the case of antichair (the concept of “chairs without back support, which are a disgrace that perpetuates the epidemic of lower back pain”). Antichairists refuse to call a chair a ‘chair’ unless it has a back frame; the most committed take direct action to fulfil the critical potential of the term, sneaking into city squares, university campuses, etc., under cover of dark and installing backs on antichairs to form pro-chairs that, they say, “were always there in ideality but were missing in moveon consumer-driven seat design”.
The terms ‘language’ and ‘literature’ are obviously already archaisms, seen as encouraging stagnancy on both sides of the equation. In practice the neologisms that survive in everyday conversation go on to be used in future works of languiture, where they help to carve out concepts from the deadstock (which, the author claimed, “was going downhill since Shakespeare, with the exception of the politically charged/correct language of the 2010s”). Now, English is not so much a dead language as an old version, the first of several that are mutually unintelligible to the generations who wrote them. Still, I’ve had fun translating this piece into the original daddytongue.
Saussure stressed a constraint on the individual speaker of a language, which flowed from its “social part”, but was not the ‘linguistic mean’ itself. It was the fact that that social part is beyond the individual, who is “powerless either to create it or to modify it” once the choice has been “established in a linguistic community”. It is in other words immutable, “out of the reach of any deliberate interference” and in fact “eludes control by the will” in general (“whether of the individual or society”). By language, Saussure means the structures that govern its use in that community, i.e. a descriptive linguistics that uses actual speech or writing as a corpus, but is necessarily abstracted from them. It is, he thought, only as speech that the individual exercises generative control over those structures (in the choice of how to use them on the axis of succession, which is to say in an utterance). Saussure felt that, though the system is “never directly altered” by an individual, the fact of it being altered was inevitable. “For time,” he wrote, “changes everything.” The conditions were these: the change could not be willed, and would occur only as an evolution of a chance occurrence in speech. The individual is implicated only as an origin-point: “a speaker had first to improvise [the change], and others to imitate it and repeat it, until it became accepted usage,” a process that “does not [even] correspond to generations of speakers” owing to the community’s “natural inertia”; “a principle of continuity which precludes freedom of choice,” in order to preserve intelligibility. Nevertheless, all this sounds to my subconscious as follows: You write in a medium that is out of your control. Could you make a movie from stock photography? Also, only the spoken word can change language for the eons.
Languiture is, then, the fulfilment of a contrary fantasy: namely that change could be willed, authored, and done in writing.
Saussure gave speech precedence for theoretical reasons. But am I alone in feeling— theoretically, but also existentially—restrained by this? I, too, feel a kind of jouissance in the current audio renaissance: a world no longer of radio (or, more endearingly, ‘the wireless’), but of omniscient background noise, .mp3s, podcasts, sound bites, sampling, streaming, Spotify; digital bandwidth that has made sound, the very medium of speech, as cheap and proliferate as Gutenberg’s poor old printing press. Ditto video, of course. But what of text?
Saussure’s rationale was not, however, historical. It was an appeal to nature. Writing did nothing more than represent speech, which was where sign and signified were properly married, and where, for that reason, changes could be made. “A literary language is superimposed upon the vernacular,” writes Saussure, “which is the natural form a language takes … Once a literary language is established, it usually remains fairly stable, and tends to perpetuate itself unaltered. Its dependence on writing gives it special guarantees of conservation”. Thus, for Saussure, writing piggybacks on the language that speech alone innovates, until it fossilises completely, “cut off from the spoken word” that is, again, “language’s natural sphere of existence.”
Woe for my ego, which has pinned its spirit, in the main, not to the spoken but the written word. It is, of course, only another arbitrary binary—what if it is both spoken and written? But Saussure’s distinction hurts all the same; every inadequacy, real or perceived, only serves to confirm the suspicion of writing already at work in my subconscious. It’s not good enough. Give up on it. Give up on us. Alternatively, summon a world that would free you from the distinction, the suspicion, and the downfall of writing, and in so doing placate the turmoil.
HAUS OF FICTION
OR: HOW PLACE COULD TAKE THE PLACE OF GENRES
What happened was that writing did not happen. It was not invented. Sumer was content with speech, and, when the walls of Egypt’s tombs were uncovered, they resembled pages from a picture book; no code, no hieroglyphs, no Rosetta Stone needed. Scribes never even existed. When the harvest was good, or the riches plenty, one simply had to remember how much and how many. Memory was sharpened. As an added bonus, human evolution skipped territorial thinking. Borders were not drawn. Nations were not made. Lands did not grow their own vernaculars. Instead, a change of place triggered a change in speech-type: in style, in voice, in subject matter, in genre. You did not go to the biography shelf, there being no library: you climbed the hill to where biography was the usual conversational topic. You did not consult the history canon, there being no (set) texts: you went to the river, the room, the hall, the suburb, the region where history was the fashion. There were plenty of places of worship, for instance, but with no institutional monopoly on (non-existent) scripture. No big church tomes. Only churches. More often than not it was the oldest tree or rock that served as a landmark for speaking spiritually, this being an accepted gateway stimuli to deep time. It was not that talk of gods was banned at home, on the toilet, or while laying in the sun in Melbourne’s Treasury Gardens; nor that politics was rude at the dining room table. It was just that people were at a loss for what to say there: the scent of the tree’s leaves, the rubble-scalp of the rock, the view from the Hill, the sway of the corsair ship that you boarded for erotica, etc., not being there to cue you. In short you would be missing the mnemonics, the embodied indexes for such and such a discourse. This was all accepted as a matter of course. How could you possibly tell someone you loved them, except in a café on a drizzling winter’s day? How could you give an elegy except at the home where the person had grown up or made kin? Where else to philosophise, to drum up a dialectic than in the sandstone quadrangle, on campus, under the jacaranda tree in high summer?
Meanwhile an unhappy aura settled on places where speech would take a turn for the worse. It is not so much superstition as association—tradition— when, for instance, your monogamist-other suggests “getting a burger at the station” and your heart falls to the floor, subways being the singular site of break ups (was it the easy exit? The sense of burying something?). No, it did not necessarily mean the end, but it was hard not to think so when you arrived in the maze of weeping other halves, or other-quarters etc., in the case of polygamy, on the way to the plant-based burger joint Lord of the Fries. No text messages for cowards and, of course, the concept of a mobile phone makes virtually no sense in this timespace. Actually, landlines were invented and installed, but in rooms or cubicles dedicated to their strict use for (1) gossip or (2) brokering deals in homes and offices, respectively (whereas questions about dinner, the bread you forgot to buy or the time that you were getting home would only confuse the person on the other end, who would umm or ahhh and, finally, change the subject back to the gossip/brokering that was suitable to a phone-box).
Here, discourse that has no real home (in other universes) is given its fair share of spacetime. “I had a dream,” your lover says, to your relief, after you have been kissing their thighs and giving sort of half-hearted head under the sheets for a quarter of an hour. Indeed, for a thousand years there was talk of nothing else on the Morning After, that being the ‘time and place’ for dream speech (and only dream speech). This caused big problems for Freud, who had no choice but to run his practice in bed alongside his patients (to say nothing of first sleeping next to them). Times have changed, of course, so that after a long transition from the inside of the bed to the bedroom in general, to the kitchen downstairs, and, finally, to a scheduled appointment in a (home) office, it was possible to develop what would become On Dreams in a more professional environment (though the spectre of Freud’s morning glory, in bed with a patient, never went away entirely). The flip-side is that speech genres depend on such sites for survival, e.g. when the foyer of a large but nondescript bank collapsed one day, in an accident, it incidentally took the whole genre of ‘conspiracies to commit a crime’ with it.
Time and place are, in fact, equal factors in what is or can be uttered. Some time constraints are obvious: cosmology is done in fields under the stars, confessions are made at happy hour(s) in bars, life stories told in planes before/during take off. But others are more subtle, or arbitrary, or are accidents of history. Thus ‘constructive criticism’ is given only while grocery shopping in open-air markets on the twenty-first of December (the idea being that you have another week or so to change your New Year’s Resolutions); singing practice is mysteriously restricted to car parks after hours, or when the stores are shut, at any rate when the cars themselves have left them and no-one is within earshot; and finally the question “how was your day?”, and the subsequent daily recap, is done only on the first of the month (whether between married couples or complete strangers), all but eliminating the frustration of that menial chit chat.
Meanwhile long form work, especially literary work, is rehearsed in derelict theatres (unless done ad lib). It is then ‘pitched’ to agents on Fridays, in the agent’s offices, and signed not as books but as month long residencies in a Haus of Short Fiction, Essays, Poetry etc., for delivery to an audience such as this.
Thanks everyone. I think we have some time for questions.
“I can,” declared Freud (again, On Dreams), “replace any of these dreams by a phrase expressing a desire.” What, then, is the desire of my languiture fantasies? What is the wish that bubbles up as ideas for short fictions, and that is fulfilled by the writing of them as such? They come again and again, and I cannot keep up with them. Variations on a theme. Recurring dream. That said, they are—superficially—wishes to which I’d freely admit, leaving my ego unbruised. After all, they seem fair enough. There is, again, the teething with my medium, a standard-issue experience for the art-type; in this case writing, though I could just as well be grappling with the four frames—or the 2D plane—of a painting. No shame in that. Nor in the fantasy of not writing altogether, having conjured a machine, or a world, in which doing so is superfluous. And in this, as well, are the well-worn tropes of making dreams come true today: a glitzy, near-future technology; a data-driven literary criticism; the spectacle of an alternate reality. I guess I am all of a piece with the zeitgeist. But, more imaginatively perhaps, I want writing to do all those things. Be those things.
For Freud, however, there must be something else at play here: a wish that cuts deeper, concealed even from me by the dreamscape. And what is it, really? A world in which my words speak to everyone? In which they could really change how people think? In which they are not merely read or heard but must be attended, grounded as they are in the very earth? Take your pick of insecurity. I asked before if I found writing wanting—whether for self-expression, the will to power and/or for the amassing of cultural capital. The demons are, of course, my own. But I’ve parsed them through writing so much, now, I’m not sure there’s a difference. That I won’t be heard, or that words as a rule aren’t the best way to get through to people? That I won’t change a thing with this craft of verse … or that words themselves are mostly powerless?
The limits of language are, indeed, the limits of my universe. Still: I want to break the frame, and have us both be freed of them.
About the Author
Jack Bastock is queer and does not eat animals. He is a graduate of the creative writing program at the University of Melbourne, with recent work appearing in Hotel Amerika, The Decadent Review and the Spineless Wonders Queer as Fiction anthology. Jack lives in Melbourne/Naarm with friends, and on the internet with you.