Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Writing, Accessibility, and Standpoint (Part 2)

A couple of weeks ago I wrote the first part of this posting, focusing on questions of specialization and technical obscuritanism as a barrier to people understanding writing -- the role of those things, how they relate to power, when they are okay and when they are not. But I said in that post that I also wanted to deal with issues of standpoint and point-of-view and how they impact on accessibility.

First of all, it is important to emphasize that accessibility of writing is not just a linear path between endpoints labelled "accessible" and "obscure" or "generalist" and "specialist." It is also about social location, i.e. where you are located in the interlocking hierarchies of power and privilege that structure life in the modern world, and also how you relate to your location.

This is put powerfully by Toronto writer and activist Dionne Brand in her essay "Whose Gaze and Who Speaks for Whom" in the collection Bread Out Of Stone -- an amazing essay and a great collection that everyone should read. The excerpt is part of her description of what she said to a panel in Toronto on cultural appropriation:

[T]hat I am a Black woman speaking to a largely white audience is a major construction of the text. blackness and 'whiteness' structure and mediate our interchanges -- verbal, physical, sensual, political -- they mediate them so that there are some things so that there are some things that I will say to you and some things that I won't. And quite possibly the most important things will be the ones that I withhold. The racialised power relations that we live determine what I will say and how I will approach my saying it. Our relative positionings within the society are at the core of these determinations. Notions of voice, representation, theme, style, imagination are charged with these historical locations and require rigorous examination rather than liberal assumptions of universal subjectivity or the downright denail of such locations. Even if my audience here were half Black or three-quarters Black, even if it were fully Black or people of colour, blackness and 'whiteness' -- racial identities -- would still mediate our conversation, though in such circumstances I might become a little more revealing. In such circumstances so much time wouldn't be wasted convincing white people that their 'ruling' culture firstly, exists, secondly, was and is wildly invasive and hegemonic and rationalises all others it meets into subordinated categories. That is, we might and in full cognizance of these circumstances proceed beyond white ignorance, white denial, white fear, white apathy, white lies, white power disguised as concern for censorship. Whites, that is, might proceed into the dangerous territory of knowing, instead of engaging in the sleight of hand Michelle Wallace calls, 'the production of knowledge (that) is constantly employed in reinforcing intellectual racism.' [pp. 152-3]

Similar dynamics function in related but not identical ways along other axes of power and privilege -- for example, talking about poverty and the social welfare system is a much different experience when you are talking to someone who is living in poverty and/or on welfare than when you are talking to someone who is and only ever has been middle-class, even if they identify as progressive.

In other words, the standpoint of the writer and the readers matter.

In mainstream writing (and other kinds of text, like television) the writer exists in their own standpoint in an unexamined and unarticulated, usually nearly invisible, way. The reader/viewer is constructed in a way that is mediated by the market -- media depends on advertising money or money from direct sale of the product, so readers/viewers who are more likely to be able to spend money in the way in question are more likely to be assumed to be the target audience. It's more complicated than that, but that's one big factor.

In my movement history project this starts out already a bit more complicated. In a certain respect, the book that I want to result from the project is not coming from a single standpoint -- it is not exclusively my words, but the words of many different participants in social movements (from interviews I have done with them) who have many different standpoints and analyses. It would be perilously easy to slip into an uncritical liberalism in presenting their words. I could use keywords like "inclusivity" and "diversity" and emphasize difference-but-shared-importance in the "liberal assumptions of universal subjectivity" decried by Brand above. In fact, in my early stages of sitting down and making some very basic first attempts and early decisions, I was shocked by how easy it was to fall into something like that -- it was easy to catch, but still kind of disturbing that it had to be caught.

A related but not identical danger is the temptation for me to hover above the text, invisible but the ultimate arbiter shaping, contextualizing, legitimizing and deligitimizing these "other" voices; the straight, middle-class, white male leftist intellectual who gets to resolve (on paper) the contradictions among those who experience and resist different kinds of oppressions in different ways. And this is not just an abstraction: As an example, participants quite explicitly said things to me that reinforce structures of oppression like racism and sexism. On the one hand, it is not my place to sit in judgment of those who have chosen to share their stories with me and pretend that I have never been blinded by privilege into saying oppressive things myself; on the other hand, being an ally to those who experience those oppressions means I cannot pretend that such things do not happen or do not matter. With respect to the more general problem, I cannot hope for some kind of pure or absolute solution, but I think the answer has to do with the word "invisible" in the sentence above. I have to be open about the contradictions among participants (while not targeting any individuals) and explicit about who I am, my role in putting the material together, and my reasons for the choices that I make. The key is not pretending I can make myself disappear, I think.

The question of standpoint and point-of-view also relates to decisions about the prospective audience. As the quotation above from Brand illustrates, for example, you may or may not have to 'prove' the existence of racism, depending on the audience. Hoping for a diverse (albeit generally progressive) audience makes for some tricky decisions: excessively explaining the obvious and failing to explain the obscure will both alienate readers, and the exact same topic will be both of those for different groups of people that I hope will read this book. Though it could easily become cumbersome and hurt the flow of the text, I think the key again is in not letting things disappear and acknowledging the differences that readers will come with. And, of course, when in doubt trying to do things in ways that challenge those with more power and privilege.

A common piece of advice to writers is to imagine that they are writing for a specific person that they know. I initially considered doing something like this for this project, but given the text of this posting so far it should be obvious why that is inadequate. So I'm making a slight variation and applying a few filters based on several likely readers that I know, with different levels of knowledge, different politics, different standpoints. I'm not saying I can please all readers -- in fact, if I don't make some angry or uncomfortable, then I'll have failed. But I am looking upon it as a challenge that I can at least partially meet to work with diverse voices and meet the needs of diverse readers, but in a way that is grounded in my best attempt at anti-oppressive politics (however flawed that might turn out to be) and that does not fall into the trap of uncritical liberalism.

Differences in standpoint and point-of-view mean that a given piece of writing will never be universally accessible, and more importantly that it will not be accessed in the same way by all readers. But I'm hoping that starting with an awareness of this results in work that is more widely accessible and interesting, and that at least makes the faultlines of standpoint and analysis visible.

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