Toril Moi and Michael Palmer: Writing aesthetic questions

Toril Moi gives a really articulate response to historical practices of feminist critique as well as current approaches to theory and practice in this area in her lecture ‘I am not a Woman Writer’, a 2007 Feminist Theory Lecture at the Tate Modern.

Here’s a link to the podcast of this excellent discussion:

Moi looks at the impact of these different imperatives (theory/practice) on a political as well as ethical position formative to the development of the contemporary writer.

There are many things I could talk to here, though I want to focus on the position she advocates – that its important to keep your options open as a writer, whether this means inhabiting at times a woman’s perspective or inhabiting one of many other perspectives that broaden the encounters, the scope of contact we have with an articulation of the human condition.

I want to talk a bit about aesthetics in relation to writing. I also want to look at the relevance of aesthetics to a political as well as ethical position for the writer to inhabit as they expand variously ways to speak the human condition.

The political and writing

Michael Palmer talked in his Master-class address at IIML on Friday about a number of approaches to a politics of writing, tracking a number of practices by authors and accompanying theoretical contexts. Like Moi says in her lecture, he also emphasised that, ‘theories depend on the questions you are raising’. I would also say that practice also depends on these questions.

In this post I want to explore where these questions are derived from and what the aim of this rhetorical imperative is as it concerns the writer.

Michael Palmer linked much of the writing he talked to, to a navigation of urgency and patience implied by a politically responsive practice/theory of writing. The political emerges in various encounters between people, events, disasters and dreams that make different demands on individuals – temporal, spacial, linguistic and inaudible etc.

Moi also reminds us that our responses to these demands are also contingent on our ethical positions, that sometimes a politics alone cannot withstand the demands of an event or encounter, in the broader context of human experience (of which the political is a significant part).

What is common here is that people both activate and witness life in political ways, they also do so morally and aesthetically.

I want to tease this out more

The French writer Mourice Blonchot thinks about the Disaster – he says that in a radical way we always respond to a disaster that hasn’t happened yet – the disaster exceeds us – it must also remain ahead in order to make us fully question our motives for following in its wake.

This is interesting but raises a number of political, moral and aesthetic questions.

Ethics and writing

If we relate the announcement of disaster yet to be, to the development of modernist and post-modernist shifts in aesthetics we see a link and a currency to how writing and ethics inform each other in the aesthetic moment.

We could say that we respond to an ‘event’ of aesthetics that hasn’t happened yet. We could say that this aesthetic elusiveness also allows us to question why we are following it. In a strange way the aesthetic maintains vulnerability, because it requires that we ask it hard questions. We are required to navigate it with all the resources we have, even though we don’t have a complete picture of it.

In this there is a little bit of leeway, a flurry of past/present/future orientated around openness, but one that has an evolving and perceivable shape that we must respond to and work within.

While this is interesting it is also of help to consider Toril’s position that ethics must be able to cope with theories that may exist in the world and practices that are yet to come or inhabit the everyday experience. This is an inversion of our usual expectations of theory and practice, of which she insists there is constant vacillation.

Aesthetics and writing

Moi ends her discussion by stating that writing provides a hope – a hope that comes from the writer saying, ‘This is what I see, do you see it too?’

In this sense there is an exchange between writer and reader, but there is only a shape still-in-the-making at the point of exchange, so you don’t know precisely what you are giving, or what you are getting.

You are grounded by that question ‘do you see it too?’ – and the shape of it, it’s aesthetic shape, through which you aim towards an exchange, and manage the various questions that demand active response, ethical and political.

In this sense the aesthetic continues to ask us why we are going to follow it in the way that we are, even though we don’t have a complete picture of it. It demands that we follow it in a way that allows us to bear with it morally and politically, that we be successfully companion to it.

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