5 Writing 5 Writing

Writing in action

The mechanism of human society is that of bodily selves who assist or hinder each other in their cooperative acts by the manipulation of physical things.

George Herbert Mead, ‘The objective reality of perspectives’, 1926

Gatherings and meetings of all kinds generate inscriptions as words and numbers, images and ideas are written down, marked up and put into motion in order to be interrogated and interpreted in talk. It is difficult to imagine politics without graffiti, petitions, pamphlets, posters, leaflets, newsletters and manifestoes; without the memorandum, briefing, proposal or press release, without the map, the plan, the budget, the bill and the White Paper, without agendas, minutes and committee papers of various kinds. Meetings are prompted by documents and produce documents; politics is conducted not only in talk, but also on paper; interaction is organized around inscription.

Writing is a way of assuming or acquiring agency. In writing we become authors, with the greater or lesser degree of authority that term entails. But what is special to political documents, compared with legal opinions, medical diagnoses, romantic novels or private letters is that they are produced in, by and for groups (which is to say that the group is produced in text as well as in talk). Documents are conceived, drafted, commented on and revised by multiple authors, working together or in series. They are then read by individuals in interaction with others, who use their interlocutors as reference points in making sense of them. Writing is not simply a form of action, but a form of collective action.

Between opposing front benches in the House of Commons is a table, and on it are two ornate despatch boxes (despatch boxes were used formerly to carry documents into the chamber). Frontbench members stand at them when speaking, leaning against them or using them to rest notes, as at a lectern. Inside the boxes are religious texts, used to swear in new members.

The document is the principal artefact of politics because actions about action must be reified into representations – accounts and interpretations of the world, statements of the definition of the situation – in order to become the object of future actions. ‘The whole factual world of human affairs depends for its reality and its continued existence, first, upon the presence of others who have seen and heard and will remember, and second on the transformation of the intangible into the tangibility of things’, as Arendt puts it.

After debate, the transcription of peers’ speeches in the Official Report (Hansard) evens them out, putting ungrammatical non sequiturs into calm, measured 1950s English, and making polite sentences of angry remarks.

Emma Crewe, ‘An anthropology of the House of Lords, 2010

Stabilizing and mobilizing

The document is a ‘definition of the situation’ given material form; it offers some account of the world, but also makes a claim that such accounts are to be constructed in writing. It’s not that documents are merely paper versions of positions developed in thought and talk, but that they are the means by which thinking and talking are done.

The document both stabilizes and mobilizes the sense of the meeting: it fixes what seemed in the process of its production both uncertain and elusive (which was indeed the reason the meeting took place), and makes it available to others elsewhere. Precisely because the sense and significance of verbal interaction is so elusive and ephemeral, a document appears to give it solidity and durability. It then makes it communicable to others, who will pick it up and read it at different times in different places. The material instantiation of talk in texts means that it can be communicated far more consistently and comprehensively than any human being could achieve in speaking to others.

This is why reading and writing – producing documents – form such a large part of what activists, organizers and public officials do. But it also means that the document itself appears to do things, to do politics. What the document does it does not only by its ability to represent external reality or by its rhetorical capacity, that is not merely by the truth value of its content or its persuasive success, but also by virtue of the capacities and affordances of its materiality.

The Emperor’s words were usually unclear and ambiguous… When asked by a dignitary for the Imperial decision, he would not answer straight out, but would rather speak in a voice so quiet that it reached only the Minister of the Pen, who moved his ear as close as a microphone. The minister transcribed his ruler’s scant and foggy mutterings. All the rest was interpretation, and that was a matter for the minister, who passed down the decision in writing.

Ryszard Kapuściński The Emperor, 1978

‘The mechanism of human society…’ is Mead, G H, ‘The objective reality of perspectives’, in Brightman, E S (ed) Proceedings of the Sixth International Congress of Philosophy, New York, 1926; cit Hans Joas (1997 [1980]) G H Mead. A contemporary re-examination of his thought, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, p 114

‘The whole factual world…’ is Arendt, Human Condition, op cit, p 83

Material on despatch boxes is from Parliament’s website; Emma Crewe is (2010) ‘An anthropology of the House of Lords: socialisation, relationships and rituals’, Journal of Legislative Studies 16 (3) 313-324

Latour, B (1986) ‘Visualisation and cognition: drawing things together’, Knowledge and Society: Studies in the sociology of culture past and present6 1–40; Bruno Latour, Science in Action: how to follow scientists and engineers through society, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987; also Freeman, R and Maybin, J (2011) ‘Documents, practices and policy’, Evidence and Policy 7 (2) 155–70

Ryszard Kapuściński, The Emperor, London: Picador, 1984 [1978], p 8