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Process Against Progress

From Andrei Tarkovsky, Nostalghia (1983).

I’m taking over the Process blog from Lesley Wheeler at the moment when I’m nearly finished the process of writing my first book and am waiting for page proofs from the press. These two things are closely related. Lesley was (though there’s no way she’d know this) the person who helped me begin writing the book in the first place. I was a graduate student with a bunch of dead-end pages and a lot of files of semi-abandoned ideas. I hail-maryed a proposal about Claude McKay’s ballads to a roundtable Lesley was putting together for MSA 12—my first MSA, which somehow involved taking a ferry from Vancouver to Victoria. At that point I’d been working with some of McKay’s early poems from the Jamaican newspaper The Daily Gleaner, as well as two photographs of McKay that accompanied them. The roundtable was memorable for me: it was where I first met MSA frequenters Helen Sword, Beth Frost, Meta Jones, Derek Furr, and Linda Kinnahan. Later, that short roundtable paper became a seminar paper, an article, a chapter, and then the basis for my dissertation.

Later still, I discovered, with some disappointment at myself, that the article didn’t really fit in the final version of the book. Not at all. This felt strange because I knew it wasn’t exactly a false start. And I still stood behind (stand behind) the argument. I’d been irritated by the way McKay’s sonnets and ballads weren’t viewed as experimental or avant-garde or even “modernist” in the sense that critics of modernism sometimes defined those terms. (Dorothy Wang has written about this question while thinking about contemporary Asian American poets.) Writing about McKay taught me that I liked pushing at the boundaries of definitions, periods, and disciplines. When I saw, in Jamaica, the ravaged bauxite fields that had decimated the land and flowers and the people he memorialized in his first few books, then writing about McKay also taught me that poetry was inseparable from large-scale, global processes of extraction and exploitation.

For a long time, not knowing what to do with the work I’d done, but knowing that I had an interest in poetic form and historical capitalism, I kept the pages in the manuscript, trying to make them fit despite the fact that my attention shifted later and later in the century. Finally, while writing in the 110-degree July heat in the California desert, I moved on. I cut nearly ninety pages from the manuscript, including the piece on McKay. I felt like I had a new lease on the book, but also that I’d somehow failed the process.

Valuing Process

In this first blog piece, I want to give some space to the different valences and values of process. But process is notoriously hard to record. Some processes encode an unmanageable historical time: processes of historical capitalism or of climate change, for instance. In fact, the word process often appears as a kind of placeholder for what seems to be ungraspable in the concrete. There’s a suspicious, vacant-eyed neutrality to the term, one that disguises the people who create, continue, and benefit from (or fall prey to) processes. At the same time, thinking about processes, in addition to people who carry them forward, helps to decenter attention to human agency alone, to partake in the kinds of social analysis that Marx elaborates in Capital.

The activity of social critique, consolidated by modernist thinkers, depends on privileging process as the object of analysis. This political attention to process dovetails with the aesthetic embrace of process in modernist texts. Plenty of modernist writing is marked by its hospitality to the abandoned work, the wrong idea, the derelict page, the ever-still-in-process picture.

To think of process as an end in itself raises difficult political questions. Claims to respect procedures produce violence on a global scale, as refugees and immigrants languish in detention centers, airports, boats, and war zones. Process was no doubt part of what brought about Walter Benjamin’s death; “correct procedure” is often the alibi for all kinds of obstruction to change. When processes are abstracted from the specific contexts in which they appear, and from the people who need to use them, the results are fatal.

For the literature scholar, process is recorded most fluorescently in the draft and the archive. The publication of drafts can be scandalous, as in the case of Elizabeth Bishop’s poems: I think the scandal comes from the reification of that which, by all accounts, was intended to be part of the process rather than a product itself. There’s no reason to think of process only as a key to understanding the product, though—as if the early draft of a poem has that clue that reveals the decisions hidden by the anthologized favorite. Process, in the way I’m treating it here, also means those works that disappear, precisely because they don’t seem relevant to the final product.

Books ultimately appear in the world as artifacts, as solid objects, as settled facts: they’re the physical relics of years of thinking and feeling. But this doesn’t feel quite right to me. Isn’t it more accurate to say that a book is a process rather than a thing? The edges of a book extend into the past and the future in a way that makes its vulgar materiality a little dubious. Maybe they even blur out sideways into alternative routes and arguments not taken. In later entries, I intend to talk about craft in academic writing, to reflect on the quiddities of small decisions about syntax and style, and to ask you about your process as well. I’ll have some cameos from colleagues who want to think about process, too. 

Process, Ruin, and Possibility

It’s a disorienting task to move away from work you’ve already written. In the hypervaluation of productivity today, we’re conditioned to look on work that doesn’t fit somewhere—in an article, in a talk, in a blog, in an email exchange, in a twitter thread—as excess or waste instead of as part of the process. The sense that there’s an opportunity cost to writing that we end up discarding is damaging for scholarship. It’s related to the aim to have a final word rather than an opening gesture. For every epiphany, though, there’s a letting go. And one modernist lesson might be that process isn’t progress, isn’t lost time or time to degree. “Successful” writing becomes immediately or eventually or hopefully visible. But it’s the process where the revolutionary ideas are, the ones that fail and then stick around. 

Writing is filled with ruins. To keep writing (forward) is mostly to keep poking (backward) around in them. The problem is that our ruins are only our own: it would be better, though uncomfortable and weird, if we could wander around in the failed attempts of others as well. Not for empathy or schadenfreude, but for the unexpected trouvailles. I have notebooks and files of failed ideas—they’re next to a small set of useless DVDs on the top of a large IKEA shelf—but the difficulty with that description is not really that they’ve failed or refused to make sense. Maybe instead there’s still some perception of academic writing in the humanities as tied to the individual rather than the collective work of people learning from each other.

Many writers are good at sharing ideas that are half-baked—my first MSA paper on McKay certainly was—but not that great at sharing work that just didn’t work. While I’m curating this blog, I have a request: do you have writing that you’ve abandoned, turned against, or deliberately forgotten? If you’re willing to send me some of your wrong moves, and to share them with others, get in touch with me. A future blog post will feature a roundtable on the topic of lost, abandoned, or otherwise “wasted” writing.

The act of writing feels full of shame because it goes awry so often: for me at least, sharing that procedural embarrassment might help generate something like friendship. In the composite language of our collective process, maybe we’ll find something unexpected. I’m a little skeptical of the idea that we get smarter or better at writing, rather than simply more accustomed to certain modes of thinking, forms of syntax, and styles of argument. That’s the professional—but what about, instead, the processional, the song before the ceremony begins?


I love this meditation, Walt--thank you. And I've had this experience in every kind of writing I do--books, essays, poems, reviews, blogs. I think of it as mulch, material that decays and fuels new growth (on an optimistic day).