Answering the question Why Write? is not just an intellectual exercise: it is a matter of the life and death of individuals and of human culture as a whole.
Everything that has ever been written has political and cultural aspects to it. This is unavoidable. For writing which is not explicitly political, the political biases of the writer (we all have them) will still come through, however subtly that may be. Political bias can come through as much in what is omitted, as in what is included. From fairy-tales to magazine articles to copy-writing for businesses, political views inherent to the author will be inherent to the text. This is true regardless of whether or not the author is aware of their bias. In fact, when the author is unaware of their bias, it will likely come through all the stronger, untempered by self-awareness and self-reflection.
Every piece of literature that is written, whether an award-winning novel or the label for a convenience product, contributes to complex interdependent narratives of power in global society which dictate, amongst other things, who gets to live and who gets to die from unnatural causes. This may seem extreme, but I ask you to consider it for just a few moments. You will find that it is the truth.
In a deeper and more comprehensive way, all writing plays a strong cultural role, globally. The language of human beings, whether written or spoken, perpetuates, evolves or disintegrates the culture which it expresses and in which it is embedded, as well as any potential culture which is ‘alien’ to it, with which it comes into contact. In contemporary times, cultures are constantly synergising, co-evolving or battling with one another, particularly via the medium of the internet.
To answer the challenge of ‘Why Write? in a truly responsible and conscious way means to take control of the power of writing, especially online, to shape politics and culture, and consciously write in a way which strengthens healthy culture and challenges unhealthy culture, whatever our subjective definitions of these may be.
In the current phase of history, the declining days of the current form of global capitalist civilisation, the responsibility is further to make sure that in our writing, whatever form it takes, we smooth the evolution of this civilisation to the next one, whatever that may be, and in these turbulent times ensure as minimum an amount of human and non-human suffering as possible.
There is no form of writing that is exempt from this calling. Language shapes and expresses intent, which shapes behaviour and society.
In order to respond to this call we must look at the underlying narratives which guide human society and culture. These narratives are often unconscious and often unexpressed in language, so that all we can do is paraphrase and estimate them, (mainly by using language, of course -retrospectively.) Commonly discussed underlying social narratives of contemporary times are often strongly related to the globally dominant capitalist society that we live in, and the corresponding system of ‘liberal democracy’ which is touted by the most powerful as the most desirable method of governance for all countries.
For instance, ‘capitalism makes everyone richer’ is an underlying story that we cannot help but live by at least some of the time, in advanced capitalist countries, even if we are the most critical people in society of those narratives. This is because of their all-pervading nature, in advertising, in news articles, in the fairy-tales we read out children and in the products we buy from day to day -even the ‘ethical’ ones. A related narrative is ‘we are free to choose our leaders’ i.e. we believe that the common global Western / Northern style of liberal democracy really is ‘government by the people, for the people’, even when plenty of daily evidence demonstrates quite the opposite. The story is often stronger than the reality, especially when powerful elites, and their language of domination, are perpetuated by the story and vice versa. The elites have the money to spread the story, day by day, to shore up their wealthy positions. Despite their very existence being a refutation of the story, they may yet believe the story themselves, and most likely will believe it. Their hypocrisy is the most extreme form of that which is common to all of us, discussed in my recent posts on hypocrisy, #1 and #2.
This is not to deny that there are healthy narratives of resistance, and even narratives of grounded and bioculturally diverse cultures and cultural elements that precede capitalism and continue to exist outside of capitalism. Also it would be simplistic to say that every narrative which has an investment in capitalism is ‘bad’. That cannot be claimed by any means. Nevertheless, in our modern interdependent society which in this digital age has developed faster than we can keep track of, fragmentation and conflict often feature in the underlying narratives that guide us, and hence in our language.
Ultimately, in order to co-create with one another the healthy cultural narratives that we need for a renewed and more sustainable global culture, and in order to become aware of all the underlying narratives that currently guide us, lest in our ignorance we let them shape us unconsciously, we need to write a comprehensive and ever-evolving catalogue of narratives. Such a project would utilise the best tools and insights from the disciplines of the social, political and economic sciences, as well as the study of history and historiograhy, as well as media studies and indeed wherever else ‘narrative wisdom’ presents itself. The evolving catalogue would reflect the evolution of culture from day to day, and it would be online, and reflexive, using intelligent software. At least, this is while we still have the capacity for digital technologies. If that capacity ends, then who knows?
Once we can properly take account of the whole of the narrative complex within society, only then can we truly responsibly decide how to contribute to that narrative complex and shape it, to some degree ‘from the outside’, if that is possible.
Meanwhile, using limited tools, all we can do is write as responsibly as we can, knowing what we know. This means knowing ourselves as thoroughly as we can first of all. Meditation and mindfulness practices are good at uncovering oneself to oneself. The more we practice these techniques, if with a good and courageous moral stance of getting to the truth of ourselves, even where that truth is dark and conflicted, then the more we can write, whether a simple political banner, an email to a friend, a book review or the most well-researched scientific essay (which are actually never objective in their nuances of expression. although they may claim to be), with sensitivity as to how our writing is shaping the politics and culture around us.
Indeed, we may discover and intuit underlying narratives in society precisely by working on ourselves and giving ourselves space to listen to the streams of data and cause and effect, from all quarters in society that flow through us, without our conscious control, largely, from day to day.
And then we may be called to decide, of course, precisely which narratives we strengthen, challenge, show care around, hold in a humourous light etc etc, and which narratives we choose to replace, or begin to replace by clever wording and marketing -for the most successful narratives are amalgamations and adaptions etc of what have come before. It is simply against the laws of physics to try to stop dead a narrative.
In other posts and on other pages I have stated the importance of the Relocal narrative for the decades ahead, but really it is up to every individual -every writer- to intuit the way forward for themselves.
Before you write something next, whether it be a shop receipt, a demonstration for eligibility for a government benefit, an off-hand text message or a very personal poem, I ask that you pause, just for ten seconds, and ask yourself, ‘What exactly am I about to write?’ and ‘Why exactly am I going to write that?’