on unmeanable writing

Something I’d been reading for my Postcolonial Criticism class made me want to rant about people—creative writers, specifically—who prefer to baffle with bullshit rather than to dazzle with brilliance:

“Firstly, writers, like the language, are subject to the situation, in that they must say something meanable. This does not mean they cannot alter the language, to use it neologistically and creatively, but they are limited as any speaker is limited to a situation in which words have meaning.” [writer’s italics]
– Bill Ashcroft, “Constitutive Graphonomy” (The Post-Colonial Studies Reader. Eds. Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin. London: Routledge, 1995.)

I don’t understand writers who love using “unmeanable” words and registers of language that are out of context and are irrelevant to their audience’s and characters’ reality, whose strings of phrases are so convoluted and tangled such that reading their writings is like combing steel wool. If you ask them what it means, either they’d give you a look of contempt, or they’d deign to explain it to you, in which case you, far from being enlightened, would all the more be boggled as to how the thing came to mean that. It’s like they’re saying, never mind what it means or how it means; if it sounds profound, dig it. Now, I wouldn’t mind so much if the gobbledygook isn’t just for affectation, but for the communication of some insight, if it contributes to narrative logic, if form and content meet. But more often than not, the nonsense and ambiguities are unintended—the writer thought he was effectively signifying something. But a writer must control the explosion of meaning. Highfalutin drivel is drivel nonetheless; it is not the sign of genius, but rather, of lack of skill in harnessing language to construct meaning. Writing is communication. Even  texts that strut  in experimental forms must be, ultimately, understandable. Acknowledging that meaning cannot be pinned down, that what the writer meant by some phrase may not be what the reader took it to mean, I still think that some meaning must be communicated. The writer and readers may interpret the text differently, but there must be something comprehensible enough to be interpreted. If the reader can’t even get past the literal level of the text how could she go about exploring the other levels?

Understanding is not just the reader’s problem, it’s the writer’s problem too. A writer who has failed to communicate, I think, has failed as a writer.


2 thoughts on “on unmeanable writing

  1. Something I have to be mindful of! Along with my propensity to drag fragments kicking out of my mind folds.

    Oh god I’m doing it again


  2. Pingback: Meaning and morality in Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations | tenant on the top floor

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