In his book, The Soul at Work (2009), the Italian philosopher Franco “Bifo” Berardi argues it is no longer just our bodies which are put to work in the economic system but our interior selves, our subjectivity, by a new “cognitive” capitalism he calls semio-capitalism. The concept of work nowadays includes our privacy, our secrets and intuitions, our poetry. The computer is our factory floor now: the work is infinite and we never clock off. What else is there to do anyway? We are the work force, the driving energy, and the end product. We are constructing a mindscape, a great world-mind, where all the digitalised parts commune in a massive ecstasy of instantaneous communication. Enjoy! Just do it! Have fun! Check it out! Work rules. But Time never sleeps, only increases in velocity. The gods have become our diseases, our viruses and nightmares. The outcome is panic, hyper-expressivity and the pathologies of depression; it is this crisis in subjectivity, Berardi says, in the deepest levels of intimate communication, which has caused the global economic crisis, not the other way round.
Writing is the opposite of work, George Bataille insists. The more time I spend in creative writing groups the more important this thought becomes. What does it mean to say writing is the opposite of work? It is an attempt to protect the space of writing from the ethos of productive labour, from the idea of writing being an activity that serves a purpose. Writing is useless, redundant, excruciating and obsessional. Bataille compared writing to a child playing a forbidden game; the transgression gives the rules their flavour, the delicious awe of what will happen if you are caught, the punishment. A child’s inner life, their separate-ness, their shadow, begins from the day they go against the law, keep a secret, tell, don’t tell, steal, lie, talk to a monster and realise with wonder that the world doesn’t end.
These are the types of thought that occur to me in writing classes when I am struck by how easily the participants will produce portraits of sympathetic characters doing decent things but how they will stare into their hands when asked to write about characters they don’t like, people who make them angry, disgusted, people they bloody hate. The words won’t come. It just doesn’t feel fair, they say. The injunction is: Writing must be balanced and fair-minded and wise and worst of all, politically correct. How many times have I heard, I can’t write that, what if my mother reads it, my wife, my boyfriend, my daughter? The squat pens rest much too snugly. There is nothing really at stake.
People usually come to a writing workshop with an idea of a story to tell and soon realise that, like a circus mirror, the story twists them into strange shapes, asks them to look deeper inside themselves, to make faces and say things they don’t dare say, and that this is probably the real reason they are there in the first place. A suppressed voice wanting to be heard. A different hand to write with. A new space. They will have to break a few of their own rules, stretch their limits, embarrass and even shock themselves. The atmosphere of a group of people plotting around a table in the writing workshop is bitter-sweet with intimacy and obscure dangers. When a piece of work takes off, when the writer and readers both feel the presence of another voice in the room, the thrill of it is seditious.
The myth-story of Orpheus and Eurydice often gets mentioned around the subject of writing and inspiration. Orpheus, the irresistible singer, who can awaken even the stones, travels to the underworld to bring back his beloved Eurydice who died of a snake bite while attempting to escape from a randy satyr. Putting to work the skills of his lyre and voice, he persuades the powers of Hades to relinquish his love but it is granted on the condition that Orpheus does not turn round to look at Eurydice until they have travelled all the way up through the shadows and reached the human world above.
He must wait. He must accept an imposed interval before. That Orpheus disobeys the rule is described by the writer and theorist Maurice Blanchot in The Gaze of Orpheus as ‘the temptation of impatience’, a desire which he suggests is at the source of writing. Moving away from the usual re-tellings of the Orpheus myth which concentrate on the power of the poet’s craft to beguile, Blanchot centers the meaning of the story in the act of disobedience, the infraction, which is also a failure because Eurydice is then lost forever to the poet. His misdeed, as Blanchot digs further into it, becomes an event which “always already” had to have taken place in order for it to occur. Much in the same way as the law demands the occasions of its own infringement for it to exist, even if every act of rebellion serves only to return power to the law. For Blanchot this is the paradoxical heart of writing.
No one can say where a book really comes from, or who really wrote it, least of all the person whose name appears on the cover. This secret other, this pressure, this ghost, this desire to articulate a new intimacy, is what people dare to confront in their own writing and with the help of others in a writing workshop. I can’t put it any better than John Burnside describing the stranger who keeps him company at the end of his memoir, A Lie About My Father:
We make our meek adjustments—but there is always a dark buzz in the soul that despises any and all adjustments, a careless, erotic energy that wants to break every rule and simply be. This is the creature that rises from my bed in the night and sits there watching, waiting to be realised.